Wednesday 4 March 2015
[Mr James Gray in the Chair]
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Dr Thérèse Coffey.)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray.
When the Government introduced the hated bedroom tax, the headline in the Nottingham Post was, “Nowhere to go”. It was spot on, of course. Thanks to the Government’s dismal record on affordable housing, thousands of people are being forced out of their homes or into poverty by the cruel and ill conceived bedroom tax, and millions of people cannot buy the homes they want, or find decent-quality affordable or social homes at all. I do not claim that the shortage of high-quality affordable housing started in 2010, but the Government’s policies have made the situation worse, not better.
Let me begin by setting out how the Government got it so wrong. Their first decision on taking office was to cut the affordable housing budget by 60%, leading to a collapse in affordable house building, and they consistently watered down affordable housing requirements on developers. The Prime Minister rushed out the latest proposals this week in a desperate bid to appeal to first-time buyers, but as Gavin Smart, interim chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Housing, said, the Tory plan
“smacks of building for one group of people at the expense of another.”
As usual with the Government, those on lower incomes are set to lose out, but that should not be a surprise. In London, where the housing crisis is at its most severe, the Mayor has, in his London plan, banned Labour councils from insisting on building genuine social homes through section 106 agreements, against the guidance of the planning inspector but with the approval of the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. Even developers have warned of the dangers of weakening the affordable homes requirements; the Westminster Property Association described the idea as “deeply flawed”.
My constituency was one of the first hit by the Government’s cuts, when a £200 million redevelopment of the Meadows, one of the most deprived neighbourhoods in the country, was scrapped. Nottingham city council had been working closely with local residents for three years to devise the plans to transform their estate by demolishing unsuitable and unpopular properties and replacing them with new homes to meet existing and future need, including extra care homes for elderly tenants. The then Minister, the right hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps), promised to visit the area to see for himself the issues left unaddressed, but that was just another broken promise.
If the Government are allowed to continue, we could sadly see the demise of genuinely affordable social housing. Their affordable rent model is anything but affordable to families on low incomes, and it is pushing up housing benefit bills in the long term. The number of affordable homes provided last year fell to its lowest level in nine years, and was 26% below the 2009-10 level. The number of homes built for social rent is at its lowest level for at least 20 years, and is falling.
Does my hon. Friend agree that this is primarily driven not by finance but by ideology? Leaving social tenants in insecure properties, raising their rents, failing to invest in properties and failing to accommodate people on the basis of need—all that comes from policies, many of them dreamed up by the previous council in Hammersmith and Fulham. Is that not a deplorable way to treat people in housing need in the 21st century?
My hon. Friend is right. The Government seem to have no interest in the idea of social homes.
Crisis noted that in England last year, just 7,458 affordable and social rented homes were completed, compared with 9,026 in the previous year. Let us judge the Government by their own standards. In 2010, the right hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield, then Housing Minister, told the Communities and Local Government Committee that building more homes than Labour
“is the gold standard upon which we shall be judged.”
Given that the Government have presided over the lowest levels of house building in peacetime since the 1920s, I suggest that they will be found wanting. House building in every year under this Government has been lower than in any year under Labour. There were 118,000 home completions last year; we are building fewer than half the homes needed to keep pace with demand.
Affordable housing is not just an issue for tenants, although I will return to the issues faced by those renting their home later. Many of my constituents want to own their own home, but if they think that the Tory party will help them to achieve their dreams, they will be sorely disappointed. Home ownership is at its lowest level for 30 years, and there are now 205,000 fewer home owners than there were at the previous election. To put it another way, in 2009-10, 67.4% of households owned their own home, compared with 63.3% now. For the first time, home ownership in the UK is below the European Union average for the pre-accession 15 countries. The number of people with a mortgage has declined, and is now lower, for the first time in more than 30 years, than the number of households living mortgage-free. Rising house prices and the requirement for larger deposits, in combination with low wages and insecure employment, is pushing home ownership out of the reach of many people. The National Housing Federation’s report, “Broken Market, Broken Dreams”, shows that with the average house price in England having risen to more than £250,000, the average first-time buyer needs to find a deposit of £30,000—almost 10 times as much as was needed by those buying a house in the early 1980s, or when I bought my first house in Nottingham 21 years ago.
Two thirds of first-time buyers rely on financial help from their parents, a figure that has doubled in the past five years. It is easy to see the disproportionate impact on those from poorer families. In the past, they may have been able to get on the housing ladder; now, they could be locked out of home ownership for ever. For the sake of the next generation, we need to tackle the housing crisis, and the Government’s plans are simply not up to the task. Their schemes have not helped anywhere near the number they claimed they would. The Prime Minister claimed that New Buy would help 100,000 on to the property ladder, but it has actually helped less than 6% of that target.
It is questionable whether a one-size-fits-all approach is appropriate. Local housing market conditions and local demographics are important factors, and there is huge variation between and within regions. In Nottingham, average house price are well below the national median, although so are wages, and we do not suffer the problems found in London and the south-east, where there are large numbers of buy-to-let, or buy-to-leave-empty, investors.
Help to Buy has not been taken up in large numbers because those on middle incomes have alternatives, so it is those on lower incomes who are still missing out. In contrast, right to buy has increased significantly since the higher discounts were introduced in April 2012. It benefits those who are able to participate, but makes life even more difficult for those struggling to find somewhere to live. Ministers promised at the time that the additional homes sold would be replaced one for one, but that simply has not happened.
Across the country, more than 26,000 social homes have been sold in the past three years, but according to the Department’s own figures, only 2,298 homes were started by councils between April 2012 and September 2014. This month’s Inside Housing reveals that the Department’s original claim of 4,795 had to be revised down after it was challenged by the Chartered Institute of Housing. Even the most recent figures from December take the number of starts only to a total of 2,712. A further 3,285 homes were sold between October and December, up 15% on the previous quarter. The problem is getting worse, not better.
With their route to home ownership blocked, more and more people are living with their parents into their 20s and 30s, and only 36% of 25 to 34-year-olds now own their own home. With the social housing stock being depleted, it is no surprise that the proportion of young people renting in the private sector has risen to 48%. Overall, a record 11 million people—one in five of the population—are now living in the private rented sector. That is an increase of 2.5 million since 2010, and it includes 1.5 million families with children.
Rents rose across England by an average of 8% last year, according to the English housing survey. That has not only had an impact on household incomes, although rising rents are undoubtedly contributing to the cost of living crisis for many families. It goes to the heart of the Government’s failure to reduce the housing benefit bill, as more people—particularly working people—are forced to rely on state support to rent in the private sector.
Although rents in Nottingham have not risen as rapidly as in other parts of the country, there has nevertheless been a dramatic increase in the cost of subsidising private sector rents. In 2009-10, local housing allowance payments totalled £22.5 million. By 2013-14, that figure had risen to £41.6 million—a staggering 85% rise. More people are using the private rented sector, and they need financial help to do so.
Of course, for many people in our city, the private rented sector is not a positive choice. With more than 10,000 households on the waiting list for social housing, the private rented sector is simply the only option available. Nottingham still has a larger-than-average social housing stock, and possibly as a consequence, a larger proportion of the population want to live in a council or housing association home. However, demand outstrips supply. The problem is particularly acute in some parts of the city, such as Clifton, where there is a high demand for social housing and a large number of social homes have been lost as a result of tenants exercising their right to buy.
For families with children, the lack of long-term certainty about their housing is a particular worry. For working parents who have settled their children into local schools, built up support networks and got child care arrangements in place, six-month tenancies and the possibility of significant rent rises do not offer the stability and certainty that they need.
The difficulties have been exacerbated by the bedroom tax, which affects more than 3,000 households living in Nottingham’s council-owned social housing and hundreds more in housing association homes. The policy penalises poorer households, who are forced to cut back on essential items to pay their rent, go into debt or build up arrears that put the future of their tenancy at risk. Some, who genuinely have rooms to spare, would be prepared to downsize to escape this iniquitous measure, but there simply are not the homes to move into, with an acute shortage of smaller properties in some areas, particularly two-bedroom houses.
As the Post predicted, some people are left with nowhere to go. According to “The homelessness monitor”—independent research commissioned by Crisis and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation—the combination of a lack of affordable homes, the recession and cuts to social security has led to substantial rises in homelessness in recent years. Department for Communities and Local Government statistics show that in 2014, over 111,000 people in England made an application to their council to state that they were homeless—an increase of 26% in four years—and “The homelessness monitor” found that the true figure was even higher than the statutory figures indicate. Rough sleeping has become noticeably worse, rising 55% in the last four years and by 79% in London.
Once people are homeless, the lack of affordable homes is keeping them trapped. It is increasingly difficult to access hostel accommodation, because there is a lack of affordable rented properties for current occupants to move into. Even for those tenants who choose to live in private rented housing—for many students in Nottingham, that is the case—there are real concerns about quality and suitability. Student unions at the university of Nottingham, Nottingham Trent university and New College Nottingham recently published their “Notts Student Manifesto 2015”. In it, they identified student housing among their top-four priorities,
“with rogue landlords and poor conditions a threat to wellbeing.”
Problems highlighted range from a failure to meet basic safety standards to poor maintenance and issues relating to personal safety and security. International students reported particular concerns.
Of course, positive initiatives in the sector have been put in place since 1997; I particularly highlight action to tackle homelessness and rough sleeping. Statutory homelessness fell by 70% under Labour, from 135,000 in 2003-04 to 40,000 in 2009-10. We also took action to improve housing standards. Having inherited a £19 billion repairs backlog, we brought 1.5 million social homes up to a decent standard through the decent homes programme, including by fitting over 700,000 new kitchens, 525,000 new bathrooms and over 1 million new central heating systems at a cost of £33 billion.
Locally, Nottingham’s arm’s length management organisation, Nottingham City Homes, is celebrating its 10th year, and I am proud that tenants are more satisfied than ever with the quality of their home, value for money and the repairs and maintenance service. Over the last decade, the proportion of non-decent council homes in Nottingham has fallen from 44% to around 2.6%, and with work still being carried out to improve the stock—more than 26,000 homes—that figure could be close to zero within weeks.
I have spoken before in the House about the difference that the decent homes work has made to the lives of the people I represent, and I pay particular tribute to the tenants and leaseholders who, in 2010, took their campaign to the front door of Downing street to secure continued funding for that vital work, which has improved the health and well-being of thousands of families in our city.
Nottingham City Homes and Nottingham city council have also led the way in improving the energy efficiency of homes in our city. Again, I have spoken many times about the greener housing scheme; despite the Government’s energy policy changes, which threaten to wreck our plans, that scheme has already delivered solid-wall insulation to thousands of families in Nottingham across all tenures, cutting fuel bills, providing warm and comfortable homes for residents and improving the appearance of our estates.
I am delighted that Nottingham city council and Nottingham City Homes are building new homes and replacing some of the less popular and difficult-to-maintain stock, as the shadow Minister has seen for herself. Some 166 homes have already been completed, and there are plans for a further 327. Small disused sites, such as derelict garages, have provided opportunities for redevelopment, and some of these homes, including five on Eddleston drive in Clifton, were built using NCH’s own labour force, boosting local employment and providing apprenticeships. Housing associations, including Nottingham Community Housing Association, asra Housing Group and Derwent Living, have also built new houses, mainly on sites provided by the council, but we could do so much more if we had a Labour Government with a real plan to tackle the housing crisis. That is the choice that voters can make in 64 days’ time.
Labour has endorsed the comprehensive plan set out by Sir Michael Lyons’ housing review, the first of its kind in a generation. It sets out how we will meet our commitment to build 200,000 homes a year by 2020, and sets a course for doubling the number of first-time buyers by 2025.
We will give local authorities the powers and resources to build the homes that their communities need, ensuring that all councils produce a plan for home building in their area and allocate sufficient land for development to meet the needs of local people. We will provide powers for groups of local authorities to collaborate and form Olympic-style new homes corporations to build on designated land at pace. We will implement measures to drive competition in the house building industry, increase capacity and expand the number of small firms. We will introduce a help-to-build scheme to underwrite loans to small builders to get them building again and fast-track planning on small sites. We will set out Treasury guarantees and financial incentives to unlock sustainable garden city development, and we will give local areas real powers to deliver garden cities through garden city development corporations, based on updated new towns legislation.
Labour councils are already building twice as many affordable homes as Tory-run authorities. A Labour Government will make housing a bigger priority for capital investment in the next Parliament.
I am sure that the hon. Lady will be aware, through her connection with Nottinghamshire, that the Conservative-controlled Newark and Sherwood district council has built a number of properties in Ollerton and Edwinstowe. In fact, on Friday, I will cut the ribbon in Bilsthorpe on some new properties that have been developed through Newark and Sherwood Homes.
I welcome any new developments of that sort, but things could be so much better. We will make better use of existing resources through a move to single-pot funding, and by refocusing public expenditure on house building over time, going from benefits to bricks. We will make fuller use of provision for Government guarantees, including for social housing, and encourage more innovative use of public land. We will also introduce a stronger definition of affordable housing in the planning system and tougher rules for assessing the viability on housing developments. We will reverse the Government’s changes, which have watered down affordable homes obligations.
We will also introduce a fairer deal for private renters. We will give tenants in the private rented sector security and peace of mind by legislating for three-year tenancies, giving them a stable home and landlords the confidence to invest. We will end excessive rent increases and ban rip-off letting agent fees for tenants. We will drive up standards by introducing a national register of landlords, and make it easier for local authorities to introduce licensing schemes. We will bring an end to cold homes by setting a new target to upgrade the energy efficiency of properties in the private rented sector, and, of course, we will scrap the hated bedroom tax. With just 64 days to go, those vital changes to our broken housing market cannot come soon enough.
I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests: I am an adviser to Essential Living.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) on securing the debate. Ensuring that people can afford to live in a decent home is one of the top issues for many of our constituents, and rightly so. Despite the suggestion that all the evils in housing started in May 2010, the reality is that our housing markets have been dysfunctional for more than 25 years, so we have built far too few homes, rents and prices have risen, and thus we have this issue of affordability. That means that when the current Government came to power in 2010, they inherited a real mess. For my money, the classic illustration of that is the loss of some 420,000 affordable homes under the last Labour Administration.
Since 2010, good progress has been made, so during this Parliament we should see the fall in the number of affordable homes reversed and an increase of some 170,000. Just as importantly—I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will want to refer to this—the Government are now seeking to accelerate the increase in the number of affordable homes so that in just a three-year period we should see 165,000 additional affordable homes being built. That would, I think, represent the fastest rate of building in this sector for 25 years.
The hon. Gentleman is rightly focusing on the idea of affordability. Can he help us by giving his definition of affordability? Does he agree with the Mayor of London’s definition of affordability, which is that 80% of market rent is affordable, or does he agree with me that that is simply nonsense?
It actually relates to the ratio depending on where someone lives and what their wages are. One problem for our constituents is that we talk about affordable housing with a capital A—the Affordable Housing programme—but most of them think about it with a small a, in terms of mortgage costs or rents, so we need to be very careful not to get caught in artificial terminology.
I welcome what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has said about building thousands more homes, including this week’s announcements on starter homes. That builds on a programme that I was able to start, the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, which has helped some 77,000 people. However, much more can be done, and I would like to make three suggestions. I suspect that colleagues will want to consider issues such as section 106 and planning gain, which I think is an area ripe for improvement and reform, but let me touch now on three other things.
First, we will get a sustained increase in the number of affordable homes built only if we focus on delivering a long-term framework for investment. When I took on the role of Minister for Housing in 2012, housing associations rightly complained to me that the rental and capital policies of Governments of all political persuasions had always been short term. They might be for two years, or there might be an understanding of what the policy framework would be for three years, but housing associations argued that a long-term approach was needed if development was to increase and then be sustained. That is why I pushed for and, I am pleased to say, secured both a 10-year rental policy and long-term housing guarantees from the Treasury to underpin the investment. That means that rental policy is now set all the way through to 2025, and that gives the housing associations and their lenders the confidence to build more and for longer.
My hon. Friend is making a very powerful speech. I completely agree with the point that he has just made, and wonder whether he could extend the same logic to councils. As a result of our self-financing initiative, councils can now start to look forward and build more homes. Does he agree that we need to give them long-term opportunities to borrow more money, perhaps by lifting some of the caps placed on them, so that they can plan well into the future for more council-built houses, too?
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend’s point, which is that we need everyone, in both the public and the private sectors, to engage and that will mean that we need to consider greater flexibility for local authorities. I will come on to that later if I can.
With regard to housing associations, now that we have the long-term framework, we need to hold them to their commitment. Many are performing well, but some are not. I hope that I may encourage the Minister to challenge those housing associations that could and should be building many more homes. I will also encourage the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds), should she cross the Chamber and take office in May—heaven forfend, from my point of point—not to tinker and meddle with that long-term rental programme, because the result of that would be inconsistency in policy. It would take everyone’s eye away from delivering actual homes for our constituents. As politicians, we have a habit of wanting to tinker and meddle, but consistency is important.
My hon. Friend has made a valid point about working with housing associations. Does he agree that councils need to work closely with housing associations to identify sites for affordable housing? The Together Housing Group, which includes Housing Pendle, has recently rescued an abandoned development of 21 homes on Knotts lane in Colne. That development was left partially built a number of years ago, when the previous developer went into liquidation. Now, that housing association, by working with the council, has been able to rescue the development and provide much-needed affordable family homes for the local community.
My hon. Friend is a brilliant campaigner on this issue in Pendle. When I was the Minister for Housing, I had the chance to go and see the work that he does. He is absolutely right: we need the collaborative approach, across the sectors and between the different agencies, if we are to get the building of these homes unlocked.
I have spoken about the need for a long-term rental policy for housing associations. My second point is that we need to match that with a long-term commitment to sustained supply for all housing tenures. I recently had the chance to co-chair—with the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr Raynsford), who was himself a very capable construction Minister under the previous Administration—a housing commission sponsored by Lloyds Banking Group. That commission brought together an outstanding group of public and private sector experts, who were crystal clear about the key issue. The report states:
“We believe that only a long-term commitment, across the political parties, will deliver the additional homes needed over the next decade. A realistic target is to complete 2 million to 2.5 million homes by 2025. To achieve this there is no single solution, no silver bullet. Rather what is needed is a larger, more competitive and diverse market in the supply of homes.”
As the report rightly says, we must not only expand the house building and private rented sector, but encourage housing associations and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) pointed out, local authorities to contribute more. We need not only the larger contractors, which the hon. Member for Nottingham South mentioned, but more small builders and, indeed, self-building. In addition to more homes for sale, a new professional private rented sector needs to develop. We will need not only to regenerate urban areas but to establish completely new settlements as part of a long-term comprehensive approach.
On that note, I very much welcome the Minister’s statement to the House yesterday on Ebbsfleet. He is making excellent progress on that; I remember the tensions and challenges of dealing with it. That, together with the potential in Bicester and elsewhere, is really good progress. Together—not individually but together—all these different elements can give us a sustained increase in housing supply, an increase not for one year or two years, but over a decade or more.
That brings me to my third and last point, which was a key finding in the housing commission’s report. We need to turn idle public land into affordable family homes. Government, in all its forms, owns a lot of buildings and land that are either underused or, frankly, completely idle.
Does the hon. Gentleman therefore agree that it would have behoved the Mayor of London to sell off for that very purpose the fire stations that he has been selling? My local one has been sold for £28 million to an as yet unannounced but no doubt private developer.
I am not an expert on the hon. Lady’s constituency, so it would be wiser for me not to wade into that particular parish, but the Mayor is very clear about raising the number of homes built and he has been crystal clear about ensuring that we get land brought into use. The Government have established an effective register within Whitehall, but it has always proved difficult to turn that register into actual homes. The prize is great, as we discover if we talk and listen to some of the people who have analysed this. Savills, for example, estimates that up to 2 million homes could be built on publicly owned land. I welcome the recent announcements by Ministers about engaging the Homes and Communities Agency to drive that forward, and I commend Ministers’ efforts in releasing land, which should result in the building of up to 100,000 homes over this Parliament.
I contend that more can be done, however, and I suggest that we need to overhaul Treasury rules that guide public asset sales in this field. The strict application of best value rules works against long-term development partnership, and it means that we fail to use public assets to provide homes that people can afford. Instead, we need to incentivise Government Departments, agencies, NHS trusts and local authorities to become long-term development partners and to use public assets to deliver homes that are affordable to many more people. There are some good signs, and I draw the Chamber’s attention to the fact that the Ministry of Defence, which is often criticised in that regard, has managed to secure a sensible long-term programme in Aldershot.
More can be done, however. I encourage the Minister, although I suspect that he does not need much encouragement, to be ambitious in this field and to encourage his colleagues across Whitehall to do likewise. Alongside that, I would like other long-term owners of land—such as our universities, which are substantial landowners, many of the large private landowners and many of our large pension funds—to be able to work in a new legal and tax framework that actively encourages them to develop communities for all and, more importantly, homes that most people can afford.
Of all the problems that will face the next Government after May, meeting our country’s housing needs will probably be one of the greatest challenges. Many of the concerns that will be raised in this debate and others are symptoms of the wider problem—dysfunctional housing markets, which have meant that for 25 years or more, we have been building roughly half the homes we need, year in, year out. To break that long-term cycle, we need a long-term commitment across the parties to create a larger, more diverse and more competitive market in the supply of homes. There are no quick answers and no easy solutions, but if we create a consistent, long-term policy framework, we can build the homes that our constituents need.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) on securing this debate on a topic that is important not only for my constituents but for people in the rest of the country. May I also declare an interest? I still own my late mother’s flat, and we have been renting it out to the same tenant since she died.
Many people misunderstand my constituency. It is in one of the poorest boroughs in the country, and 40% of my constituents live in social housing. We have a great mixture of people. The very rich, the very poor and people from all over the world rub shoulders. I have the smallest amount of green space of any constituency in the country. We all live on top of one another, and we quite like it that way. However, the housing crisis is fundamentally changing the nature of my constituency. The average house price in the UK is an outrageous £188,000, which makes it impossibly difficult for the average person to buy these days, but the average price of a house in my constituency is £665,275. Tomorrow, I will see some 12-year-old children at one of my local schools. They were born and brought up in Islington, and they are ambitious and looking forward to life. How on earth will any of them still be able to live in Islington in 15 years’ time? Why are we allowing that to happen? Why are we not doing something about it? It is simply unfair.
These days, not only the children of the poorest but those of the richest will be unable to live in Islington when they grow up, because our house prices have got completely out of control. I do not want my constituency fundamentally to change, and neither do the residents of Islington. We can see no reason why it should, and we think that radical housing change is needed to regulate the market. Some people in this Chamber and in this building will think, “Oh, my goodness. What is this, some form of Stalinism? We can’t start controlling the housing market.” Excuse me, but yes, we can. Most world cities have some form of housing regulation that goes much further than the pusillanimous attempts that have been made in recent years to control the housing market in London. We must start taking strong action to ensure that London people can live in London.
I do not have any problem with people from outside London wanting to come and live here. There is a great tradition of people from all over the world coming to live in Islington. However, do you know what is happening now, Mr Gray? I went to see a woman a couple of months ago who is living in a completely overcrowded council flat. She is busting out at the seams. Her husband runs a local café, and has done for 25 years. They are a good local family, and the kids are doing well. She said to me, “I have no idea where my kids are going to live. They are all grown up now. Where are they going to go? How can I help them to live in Islington? We want them to stay here. We are absolutely overcrowded, and look at that,” and she pointed at the enormous tower block that is being built on the canal nearby. It is called Canaletto, or something equally ridiculous. It is covered in fancy stone, and it reaches up into the skies. We all know that when it has been sold, the lights will be off at night because no one is going to live there. People across the world are investing in our housing market, which is not properly regulated. If they have a choice between investing their money in a few gold bars and saying, “Let’s buy a flat in London,” they will buy a flat in London, because it is nice and secure. They will keep it empty, warm and secure, and they will rob the people of London of somewhere to live.
Personally, speaking as a Back Bencher, yes, I do. I want to see rent regulation. An individual should be able to enter a tenancy agreement with a landlord for a long period of time—three, four or five years—at a set rate, which should increase only in line with inflation. We should not be able to treat people as they are being treated.
I believe that the private sector has an important role to play in meeting our housing need; I am not one of those people who do not believe in the private rented sector. However, we now have an entire generation of youngsters—some of them are our own children and our researchers’ friends—who move into properties and are exploited. They are asked to pay ridiculous amounts of rent. They make a home, but after six months or a year, perhaps because they have complained about the fact that their windows are leaking, they will be chucked out and they have absolutely no rights. We have to strike the right balance, and we must not give tenants so many rights that landlords are frightened off, but we are talking about people who want to be able to make a home in a community. For them to be able to contribute properly, they need some form of security. We should not allow them to be pushed out of our cities and our metropolises because rents are continually being hiked up.
The hon. Lady is talking about striking a balance. Does she agree that the acute problems that affect her constituents are of a different magnitude to the problems in the rest of the country? Affordable housing is a difficulty in the rest of the country, but not on the scale that she has outlined.
I completely understand and agree. That is why when the Government talk about localism, I say, “Hooray! Let us come up with some local solutions to local problems.” However, when my local authority starts to introduce innovative schemes to try to address our problems, we are either trampled on by the Department for Communities and Local Government continually changing the rules and tightening up on section 106 agreements, which we are using as imaginatively and laterally as we can to build as much affordable housing as possible—in Islington, that has to be social rented housing if it is to be properly affordable—or we are trampled on by the Mayor.
The hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr Prisk) talked about publicly owned land, and the Mount Pleasant site in my constituency is one such cause célèbre. It used to be a massive piece of publicly owned land, which was owned by Royal Mail. When Royal Mail was privatised, the large site at Mount Pleasant was deemed to be a “car park”, so it was sold for a song. The developers now say on behalf of Royal Mail that, because it is a development site, they should be able to get huge amounts of money back, so they cannot possibly afford to put affordable housing on the land. There is a battle royal going on in my constituency about the matter. My local authority and Camden local authority both say, “We are in desperate need of real affordable housing, and this is one of the largest development sites in the area. Please, please, let us build homes for local people. Please don’t stop us.” And what happened? The Mayor came in and said, “What we mean by ‘affordable housing’ is 80% of market rent.” Guess what? Nobody in Islington can afford that. This is nonsense.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way; she is being generous with her time. May I take her back to her comments on property values in Islington? How would she seek to control the market? How would that work in reality? What steps would she like to see a Labour Government take to control the marketplace and control property values?
No, I will not go back to that. I will carry on talking about Mount Pleasant for a minute, because it is a disgrace. The more we talk about it, the more we expose the difference in values between the Conservative party and local people and why the Mayor is trampling on local people’s wishes. The Mayor is the Tory party’s London representative, and he aspires to high places within the party. People should be warned about his agenda.
Some 681 new homes will be built on the Mount Pleasant site, and 163 of those homes will be affordable, at 80% of market rent, but the rest will carry the most ridiculous prices in which only people cashing in their gold bars in China could invest to be able to live there. We have 19,000 families on the housing waiting list in Islington who want to stay in Islington. If we could build 1,500 affordable social rented homes on that site, on the Canaletto site or on another such site, we could unplug our housing waiting list. People would then have a fighting chance of getting themselves a social rented home.
I will illustrate the sort of people on my housing waiting list. I never try to exaggerate. Whenever I make a speech, and I have made this speech many times over the past 10 years, I always talk about the very last person I met. In this case, the last person I met was a woman with three children. She has lived in so-called temporary accommodation for five years. She had polio, so her legs are in the most terrible state. She has 28 steps up to her front door, and she has fallen down twice and broken her leg. She now has to have a knee replacement. She has a child with special needs, and she is stuck in this accommodation. And guess what? She has also been hit by the benefits cap. She is in temporary accommodation, which costs £400 of the £500 a week that is available to her. She and her three children are living on £100 a week in entirely inappropriate accommodation. My local authority is doing its utmost to find alternative accommodation.
Frankly, if someone moves their car in Islington, we have built a flat there by the time they come back in the evening. We are building as much social rented accommodation as possible in the area, despite the Government having cut back the subsidy to local authorities and despite the Government making it so difficult for my local authority to stand up to developers and say, “We need social rented accommodation. That is what our local people say. We are the local representatives. Who are you? What is localism? Let us have our say.”
Does my hon. Friend agree that the potential role of a progressive Labour Mayor would be to drive up the number of affordable homes on these big sites, rather than taking every opportunity to drive down the number of affordable homes, as the current Tory Mayor is doing?
Absolutely, and I will give another example. Clerkenwell fire station is on the other side of the road from the notorious Royal Mail site, which was sold off for a song and out of which a huge profit is now being made. My local authority is attempting to constrain the Clerkenwell fire station site by saying that it must be used for affordable housing. We believe that best value does not just mean that a public body should squeeze as much money as possible out of a site by building as many luxury flats as possible. Best value for the community—this is a public asset in the middle of the community—ought to be what the public want and what will give best value to that community. Providing homes to my local community in Islington is best value as far as we are concerned, which we hope a Labour Mayor would understand. I will always give Boris Johnson the benefit of the doubt, and I will be completely converted if he comes back with this, but I want him to say, “Emily, I understand that ‘best value’ means affordable homes on that site, which means a large proportion of social rented accommodation.” I hope against hope, but I am always an optimist. You never know, Mr Gray; you never know.
I appreciate that I have taken a bit of time, so I will wind up, although there is much more that I want to say, as I am sure people can tell. The hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford said that there is no silver bullet, but there is. The reason we do not have affordable housing, whether in Northern Ireland, in his constituency or in London, is that we do not have enough homes. We have not been building enough homes, and we did not build enough when we were in government. We did a great deal of good, and we did up all the country’s social housing. We made all social housing conform to the decent homes standard, which was a fantastic achievement that we do not shout about enough, but we did not build enough new homes. We needed to build more.
It is all very well for the hon. Gentleman to carp about that, but, frankly, his party should look at the plank in its own eye. How much has his party built during its five years in government? Very little indeed. That is why we are in this crisis, and one thing on which we can all agree is that we must build more homes. We need to be brave and allow local communities to decide on the sorts of places that they need. The solutions that are appropriate for my constituency might not be appropriate for Nottingham or York. Nevertheless, we must drive local authorities and local people, so that we are able to give our younger generation a chance. My youngsters might not be able to live in Islington, and Nottingham youngsters might not be able to live in Nottingham, because they cannot afford to move into the sort of accommodation in which their parents lived. This is all about intergenerational justice, and we, the older generation, either have secure social rented homes or are buying our own places, but our youngsters have no chance unless we grasp the nettle and say, “Yes, we owe it to the youngsters in this country to start building more homes.”
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) on securing this important debate, because there is a huge affordable housing problem. Whether in the social rented sector or the private rented sector, people are struggling. She and the hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) are right that the problem is not new; there has been a problem for a long time. The previous Government did not build enough houses, which leaves us where we are now, and the current Government have not fixed the problem, either.
My constituency of Cambridge has an acute problem, partly because we are a success story. We have a booming local economy and very low unemployment, particularly youth unemployment, but we have not had the housing or infrastructure that are needed to keep up. In fact, in previous decades, there was a deliberate policy of not building houses in Cambridge but only building in the surrounding villages, which increased the cost of housing and worsened traffic congestion. That has now changed, but it takes a long time to catch up, so private sector prices are getting ever higher, whatever the category. Rent for a one-bedroom flat in Cambridge is the highest in the entire east of England. The average house costs 11 times the median salary, which prices many people whom we desperately need—researchers, teachers and nurses—out of the housing market.
We have a shortage of social and council housing. As of September 2014, 2,500 people were on the housing needs register. Many people are waiting two years or longer to find a place. There is huge demand. In November, there were 90 bids for a one-bedroom flat, and there were 152 bids for another property in December. We have a shortage, which is not a new thing. The previous Government managed to reduce the number of social and council houses by 421,000 across the country, which is a big problem—a huge indictment.
What hit us perhaps even worse in Cambridge was the ridiculous negative subsidy scheme, in which council tenants’ money was taken from Cambridge to be spent elsewhere. In Cambridge, £1,300 had been taken from every tenant by the time we got rid of the scheme. Over the 13 years of the Labour Government, the sum taken from Cambridge city council was £120 million. In our surrounding district, South Cambridgeshire district council lost £118 million to the scheme. The money was taken directly from council tenants.
Just think what we could have done with that money if we were allowed to keep it. We could have spent £5,000 doing up every council house and still have had enough money to build about 1,000 more. I am delighted to say that the Government have scrapped the scheme, so the city council has been able to build and improve council housing. When we ran the council, we started a programme to invest £286 million, partly from those savings, to build 2,000 council homes over the next decades. Free from negative subsidy, we can make that a reality: we built 146 council homes before the elections last year.
We got through an ambitious local plan, now being inspected, calling for 14,000 new homes by 2031, 40% of which would be affordable, and the Greater Cambridge city deal with a total of £1 billion of investment in affordable housing and transport. I want to go further and faster. Although we lost control of the city council last May, just last week at the budget meeting we pressed the new Labour administration to invest the council’s own money in housing, rather that speculate on commercial property as it wanted, because we think that people in Cambridge need those houses. We therefore argued for £12 million to be put into 100 affordable homes, but sadly Labour decided to stick with its rather more risky approach. That housing was needed locally and would have generated revenues for the council as well.
We will keep pressing, but we also need to do that nationally. My party has the most ambitious plan among the three parties: to build 300,000 homes a year, because the calculations show that replacement needs 225,000 homes as there are more households. If we do anything less than 300,000, we will not be keeping pace and the pressure will continue, albeit perhaps at a slower rate.
I am sure that the hon. Lady has heard the discussions. Garden cities would be a large part of that plan, because they are a sustainable way to go ahead. It is no secret that we have wanted to see much more of this, but coalition government is not the same as a single-party, Liberal Democrat Government—I look forward to seeing that at some point.
The other thing we would like to do that we have set out in plans is to give local authorities the ability to suspend the right to buy and the right to acquire. They have played a useful role in many places, but they are incredibly damaging in other areas. They are depleting social housing in places such as Cambridge. A localist agenda would allow councils to decide what is best and ensure that all proceeds are used to build more social housing.
Since we have the Minister here, I would like to pick up another issue quickly.
I will not, I am afraid, because other people wish to speak.
On 28 November, new guidance on housing developments and section 106 payments was issued for sites with small developments of fewer than 10 units. We need those section 106 payments. In Cambridge, a 10-unit site is substantial and incredibly valuable. That measure is already costing the city more than £200,000 and the figure is expected to reach £500,000 a year, and that is a mistake. That makes it harder for somewhere such as Cambridge to ensure that housing is available for people on low incomes and prevents the establishment of properly mixed communities, which are the most sustainable kind. I therefore urge the Minister to get rid of that proposal immediately because of the harm that it will do to Cambridge and elsewhere.
I also urge the Minister to look again at the vacant building credit, which is also causing problems, at least in its interpretation, because people can use it to avoid the contributions that they should make.
My last point is that the Treasury still places a tight cap on the amount that local councils can borrow from the housing revenue fund to build new houses. That was true under the previous Government, as well us under this one. Places such as Cambridge need to be able to keep pace, so we need those powers. I know that that is up to Treasury Ministers, not this Minister, but that cap should be got rid of, or at least lifted, so that councils can manage prudentially. For the council to borrow money to invest in housing in Cambridge would be a good investment financially and for the people of the city. Cambridge has been a success story and that has brought problems. We are growing and unemployment is down, but we therefore have more and more pressure on housing. We must deal with that urgently.
They are the rough sleepers, for example, whose numbers have increased by 55% under this Government; the homeless, whose numbers have increased by 26%; sofa surfers; adult children and grandchildren still living with their parents or grandparents; and families in grossly overcrowded conditions.
York has one of the strongest economies in the north of England. Under the Labour Government the number of jobs grew from 40,000 to 57,000, and that growth has continued, although slightly more slowly, since 2010. However, that has not been matched by housing growth, so a shortage of housing is driving up the cost of both renting and buying.
The problem is getting worse because the gap between top earners and low earners is increasing. Back in 1997, lower quartile housing prices were four times greater than lower quartile earnings, but now they are eight times lower quartile earnings. There are currently 717 homes for sale in York, with an average sale price of £290,000. Of course, that is less than in London, but wages are far less than in London, too. The average price for a one-bedroom, entry-level flat in York is £133,000. The annual income required to buy that is therefore £43,000. By comparison, elsewhere in the region, in Leeds the required income is £33,000, in Wakefield it is £26,000 and in Barnsley it is £20,000.
Who can afford to buy in Yorkshire? In York, a barrister, a GP or a mortgage adviser can afford a one-bedroom, entry-level flat on their wages, but a construction site manager or a police sergeant cannot. In Leeds, an estate agent or insurance broker can afford to buy, but a university lecturer cannot. In Wakefield, a police constable or a schoolteacher can afford to buy, but a paramedic cannot.
The thresholds for private renting are pretty much the same, although in York the construction site manager on £42,000 a year could rent, but the police sergeant on £37,000 could not. In Leeds, a class teacher could rent, but the police sergeant could not. Those are people whom every one of our communities needs: police officers, teachers, estate agents and lecturers.
My hon. Friend talks about some of the sorts of people who cannot afford to buy, but is the position not so much worse for so many vital public sector workers, such as home care workers and many others, who are trapped on insecure contracts, and increasingly on zero-hours contracts, and do not have any certainty about their long-term income, despite doing vital jobs?
My hon. Friend is right, although it is not only public sector workers who are on zero-hours contracts; such contracts affect a lot of people who provide essential services. Every time we go into a shop, we are buying something we need from a private sector worker.
During my time, York has never built enough affordable housing, and that is my biggest regret—I might say my biggest failure—during 23 years in this House. I say to my friend, the hon. Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy), who is here, that unless he and my successor, the new Member for York Central, increase the amount of housing we build in York, we will snuff out the economic growth that has been so important to the city in recent decades.
The number of affordable housing completions in York is falling. In 2010-11 we had 282, but in the following year we had 151, then 127 and, in 2013-14, just 50. Why are those numbers falling? The Government have introduced five measures that have reduced the amount of affordable housing built. First, they raised the affordable housing threshold for rural developments, so that affordable housing is not provided on developments of 10 homes or fewer. Since that change, only one rural housing scheme of more than 10 homes has been proposed in York. In the previous 18 months, 11 such schemes were proposed, all of which made contributions towards affordable housing, but that has stopped.
Secondly, the vacant building credit will mean that there is not an affordable housing component when vacant buildings are converted, or razed to the ground and rebuilt, to provide housing. A large part of the Nestlé factory site is available for redevelopment. The plan was to provide a couple of hundred homes, of which a substantial proportion would have been affordable. Now, because of the Minister’s change of policy—will he look up from his phone for a minute?—those affordable homes may no longer be provided.
Thirdly, there is the exemption from the right to convert offices to residential use. That also used to generate a proportion of affordable housing but no longer has to. The council in York estimates that since that change 77 affordable homes in York have been lost. Fourthly, York has a healthy housing revenue account, but the cap on the council’s ability to convert the resources it has into further building is reducing the amount of affordable housing that is made available. Fifthly, of course, the Government have also cut their grant for affordable housing to £23,000 on average per property, which is roughly half of what it was. All these five policies need to change. Of course, the lack of affordable housing is pushing people into the private rented sector, so what the Government are doing is reducing their capital contribution to building housing and instead spending the same amount of money, or more, on subsidising private landlords, which cannot be a good use of public money.
There is a very special problem in York with the broad rental market area, which is used to set the local housing allowance. It is a problem because rents in York are much higher than in areas some 20 miles away that are deemed to be part of the same local market for determining the BRMA rate. For example, the average private rent in York for a one-bedroom property is £564 a month. The BRMA local housing allowance is £430 a month, leaving families to find £134 a month from their own resources. However, in Selby, which is just 12 miles away, the average rent is £391, nearly £40 lower than the local housing allowance. People on the periphery are getting what they need—their full rent is covered—whereas people in York are getting substantially less. There are similar figures for two and three-bedroom properties, but I will not give them now. However, there is a gap of £220 between the local housing allowance and the average rent for a three-bedroom property.
This problem of a single BRMA covering a high-cost city and a much lower-cost rural periphery affects just four places in Britain. One is Cambridge, and I have written to the hon. Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) about this; some months later, I am waiting for his reply, to find out whether we can do joint work on this issue. The other three are Oxford, York and, in Scotland, Edinburgh. If the Government do nothing else in those four cities, they should split those BRMAs, because then the BRMA would provide something closer to the real cost for people in the centre, and it would stop wasting public money by overpaying, if I might say so, on the periphery.
I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman has not received my response. I definitely sent one; in fact, I was surprised that he had not replied to me. Nevertheless, he is absolutely right: the BRMA, as introduced by the last Government, has been a calamity for places such as Cambridge, and I hope that that issue can be resolved.
Right: I will work with the hon. Gentleman in the few weeks that I have left as an MP, and with my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith).
One thing that the Government and local authorities must deliver is more land for housing. Critically, York needs to agree a local plan to designate where development will be permitted. That has not happened for decades under successive Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat-led councils in York. The current Labour council has submitted a plan; it was rejected by the Government and the council was told to redraft it. Now, there is an argument between the parties. Labour and the Green party argue that the council should plan to build 850 homes a year; the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives are proposing something like 730 homes a year.
In York, 4,200 homes have been built in the last 10 years, which is 420 a year. That is 300 homes a year less than the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are asking for, and 425 homes a year less than Labour and the Green party are asking for. I ask all those parties locally to stop shilly-shallying, to cut a deal and to get the plan approved, so that developers know where they can provide housing and where they cannot. If we do not do that, the housing that is so desperately needed simply will not be provided.
Thank you very much, Mr Gray, for calling me to speak. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I endorse every comment made by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) in her excellent speech, and congratulate her on securing this debate.
Housing in my constituency is simply in crisis. In my constituency, more people rent privately—30% of my constituents—than own property, and 44% of my constituents rent social housing. Private rents in Hackney are now at 54% of income, and there is a huge lack of certainty about the length of private tenancies, and about rents, which often increase just because they can be increased.
I will give a couple of examples. I have routinely been sending out questionnaires to constituents, because I have so many people contacting me about these issues. Two adults and a child live in a one-bedroom property. One full-time income and one part-time income brings them in £2,100 a month after tax, and they also have child care costs on top of that. When we compare those figures with the weekly median rent in Hackney, which is £330 a week, it does not take much knowledge of maths to work out that their income does not go very far.
I will give another example. Somebody said that a combination of having to pay high fees every time they move, and the fact that they have to move every 12 months due to rent increases and the inability to obtain longer-term tenancies, has seriously hindered their ability to save as well as settle. This issue affects not only private tenants but the community as a whole, because of the churn that we get as a result.
House prices have gone up 124.9% since 2005, when I was first elected, and the average house price is slightly lower than in Islington, at £606,000. Of course, for new social housing, there is now the edict that most social housing should be 80% of local private rents. In Hackney, that is nonsense; the sums arrived at are not affordable. Tenants, often strangers to each other, are now sharing rooms out of necessity. Then, of course, we have the invidious bedroom tax. On Wenlock Barn estate alone, in Hoxton, 74 households are hit by that tax, and they live in fear about what will happen to them. It is not as if there is available housing of the right size for them, because there is such a squeeze on need; even if they were made to move, there is nowhere for them to move to.
I have some specific local concerns. One is about non-domiciled landlords. They do not let slum properties; we do not have that many very, very bad properties in Hackney. However, the appeal of rental yield is what many properties are sold on, off-plan, which means rents go up each year, because the letting agent is on a ticket to increase their profit and that of the overseas landlord, be they in Dubai or Hong Kong. Increasingly, huge swathes of properties are sold overnight off-plan, even when developers have promised the local planning committee that they will not do that. There is no legal constraint on the number of properties that can be sold to someone overseas. I hope that both Front-Bench teams consider looking at this issue.
There is a really shocking case that I have come across recently. A national property developer in the UK employs staff whose job is entirely about arguing with planning departments for additional units of housing and for fewer units of social housing. Those staff members are paid a bonus for every additional unit that they argue up, and for every social unit they argue down. In the process, they tie up days and days of council officers’ time. In one case, nearly a whole year—more than 300 days—of council officers’ time was taken up, because these staff keep coming back, as their income depends on it. I use the word advisedly, but that practice is an immoral way to earn a living, and it is shocking when I consider the impact on my constituents.
Recently, we had a battle over the New Era estate. I will not go into that again, but private landlords there are able to sell property on, forgetting that they are selling not just property but people’s homes, which affects their lives. In London, we see our Mayor caving in to private developers. He wants to maximise luxury flats, which are often sold to overseas buyers. The local fire station in my area has been sold for £28 million, which can only mean luxury flats. That is a scandal, especially with fire response times now more than six minutes in the area. In Bishopsgate in Shoreditch, an area that has not had a social housing unit built in 10 years, the Mayor is again on the drive for a 48-storey tower block with luxury flats.
Hackney is building; it is one of the top two councils nationally when it comes to building new homes. It could do more if the housing revenue cap were lifted, and if we could see a long-term solution to this problem, which is what is needed. Again, I appeal to both Front-Bench teams. We should look at the ballooning housing benefit bill, which is pouring money down the drain when it could be better spent on building new homes that are genuinely affordable. I have a few asks. I go further than my Front-Bench team, because I believe that Hackney’s problems today will ripple out; we are the canary—Islington probably is too, in some respects—showing what will happen in the rest of the country.
We need longer tenancies. The Council of Mortgage Lenders, which I met yesterday, says that that is possible; there is no big block in the system. So why is it not happening? I applaud our Front-Bench team for pushing for longer tenancies. There also needs to be greater certainty about rents; perhaps there could be a rent escalator model. We also need to stop retaliatory evictions. There should be a landlord register, with a quality kitemark, so that tenants know what they are buying, as they would in any other area of business.
We should disbar landlords who are not fit and proper. There should be mandatory installation of fire and carbon monoxide alarms. We should change the definition of “affordable”, to break this ridiculous link with market rents, which does not have any relation to the incomes of the people that my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Sir Hugh Bayley) referred to. I agree with the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr Prisk) that the Treasury rules need to change, to allow the sale of public land for public benefit. St Leonard’s hospital has now gone to PropCo and the NHS, and the fire station is being sold off. All around us in my area, every possible bit of development land is being sold, not for affordable housing for local people, but for overseas buyers to live in luxury flats.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) on securing this important debate.
As a country, we face a severe housing crisis. We are not even building half the number of homes that we need to keep up with demand. As the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr Prisk), the former Housing Minister, said, certainly for more than 25 or 30 years, we simply have not been building anywhere near the number of homes that we need. It is regrettable that, under this Government, we have seen the lowest level of house building in peacetime since the 1920s.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South has spelt out, people are being priced out of home ownership, and millions are on the waiting list for a social home. Home ownership is at its lowest for 30 years, and a record number of young people in their 20s and 30s, many of whom are living at home with their parents, are suffering most from this. We had the lowest number of homes in 20 years built for social rent last year. As my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Sir Hugh Bayley) pointed out, there has been an increase of 55% in those sleeping rough since 2010, and an increase of 26% in those who are statutorily homeless. As he also said, different people from public and private sector organisations are being priced out of home ownership. They may be cleaners, childminders, office workers, bus drivers or shop workers in some areas. In other areas, they could be teachers, police officers, or university lecturers. The list goes on.
The lack of affordable housing is not only bad for those who cannot afford to live in their communities. It is also bad, as was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier), for taxpayers and the wider economy. Worryingly, there has been an increase in the benefits bill because of people who are in work receiving housing benefit: an increase of two thirds since the Government came to power. It is a threat to our economic growth and competitiveness, with businesses in high-demand areas such as London—but not only London—worrying about where their staff will be able to afford to live. So it is clear that we need many more affordable homes, including council homes. I grew up in a council house, where I spent the early part of my childhood, so this is not just an abstract notion for me.
It is regrettable that the Government have taken every opportunity to undermine the building of genuinely affordable homes. As my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South pointed out, it was an early signal of intent that, within weeks of taking office, the Government cut the affordable homes programme by an eye-watering 60%. They have redefined what affordable means. They changed what was meant by an affordable home when they introduced the 80% affordable rent model. As my hon. Friends the Members for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) and for Hackney South and Shoreditch pointed out, the truth is that homes at 80% of market rent are very often unaffordable in high-demand areas. According to research carried out by Inside Housing, for a home to be affordable for those in Kensington and Chelsea, a combined income of £80,000 is needed, and for many other London boroughs people need an income of £40,000. That is not affordable for many of the key workers we need to live in our cities.
As though redefining “affordable” was not enough, the Government have watered down the requirement to provide affordable housing and removed the requirement for affordable housing contributions on sites of fewer than 10 units. As my hon. Friend the Member for York Central pointed out, this is having a particularly devastating impact in rural areas. The Government have introduced what they call a vacant building credit, which is basically an excuse for developers not to fulfil their affordable housing requirement, and even the developers themselves think that that goes too far. The Westminster Property Association, which includes British Land, Land Securities, Berkeley Homes and the Grosvenor Group, said that the policy was deeply flawed and would lead to a further erosion of the ability of people from a wide range of backgrounds to live in the heart of the capital.
If I cross the Floor of the House, as the hon. Gentleman suggested earlier, we will obviously inherit the current affordable homes programme, but we will make our plans for the future clearer in the weeks to come.
Even Westminster city council’s deputy leader, Robert Davis, has said that the policy
“threatens our capability to deliver much-needed housing in central London.”
His director of planning went even further and called it insane. The Housing Minister claimed that the reforms would not have a significantly adverse effect on the affordable housing programme, even though his own Department admitted that it had not done a formal assessment of the policy’s impact.
The City of London has estimated that this policy will reduce its housing budget by a massive £8 million. It is clear that the Tory Mayor, as hon. Members have already suggested, is keen on driving down the number of affordable homes, particularly on big developments. My hon. Friend mentioned the Mount Pleasant development, which used to be public land. It has not been used to provide the number of affordable homes that we need, precisely because Boris Johnson has taken it upon himself to call in that application and force down—not up—the number of affordable homes on that site.
The Government have failed to live up to their promise of replacing homes sold through right to buy one for one. Since 2012, for every 21 council houses sold under right to buy, only one has been built. As my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South underlined in her contribution, the Government’s bedroom tax is not only a complete failure of a policy that hits the most vulnerable the hardest, but it has led to a rise in rent arrears and, in some cases, homes being left empty.
One or two such changes would have been bad enough, but the cumulative impact of the changes that the Government have introduced has meant that people across the country are struggling to find a home to rent or buy. Tragically, the lack of affordable housing is having a real impact at the sharp end. I have already mentioned homelessness and rough sleeping, but it is worth mentioning again that the lack of affordable housing is, unfortunately and tragically, driving the numbers up.
Housing will be a day one priority for the next Labour Government. It is true that the market has not been delivering for quite some time. There is a huge and pressing need to increase the overall supply of new homes. We have made it clear that, under a Labour Government, housing will be a priority for capital investment. We will reverse the watering down of section 106 and ensure that tougher rules are in place to assess viability, so that developers cannot dodge the rules. We will scrap the Government’s affordable homes avoidance scheme. We will make sure that we use public land to drive the development of affordable housing, and we want to see councils return to their historic role of building council homes. Wolverhampton city council is building the first new council homes in our city in more than 30 years. I am proud that Labour councils are building twice as many affordable homes as Tory local authorities.
There is a crucial role for housing associations. I am always grateful for the wise advice of the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford. He suggests that I make sure that they have great stability going forward. I say to him that some of the biggest changes to the way in which housing associations operate have occurred under his Government. There has been a huge cut in funding, and the welfare chaos that we have seen has provided unstable and uncertain conditions for them to operate in. Unfortunately, the story of this Parliament has been an ever-rising need for affordable homes, but we have had a Government seemingly determined to do everything that they can to undermine the building of new, affordable homes.
I know that the Minister will get up and aggregate the numbers over a five-year period, but if the Government are so serious about building affordable homes, why did they cut the affordable homes budget by 60%? Why did they water down the definition of affordable? Why have they watered down the requirements on developers? Why have they changed the way in which viability is assessed? All those measures have led to the number of affordable homes, particularly those for social rent, going down. Only a Labour Government would have a comprehensive plan to tackle the long-term housing crisis by making the market more competitive and making sure that councils have the powers and flexibilities to build and provide the housing that we need.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. My hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr Prisk) made some good points, as he always does, on how we built the foundations for the success we are seeing with house building. He should be proud. One point he touched on, which showed the Government’s ambition, was the public sector land that has been released, which is enough to build 100,000 houses. A few Members made that point, and I am pleased to announce that we have surpassed that target. When Members leave the Chamber, they will see that we have gone past 100,000 and set ourselves a higher target of 150,000 in the next Parliament.
I am disappointed that the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) seems to lack real ambition. The Labour party generally seems to lack ambition compared with us on what can be achieved. The hon. Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) made a fair point on the ambition of what we should be delivering. I have often commented that setting targets can lead to unintended consequences and fictitious outcomes. We should be driving for the right outcome, which is homes that people can afford. The Labour party’s lack of ambition in wanting to hit 200,000 homes by 2020 is clear and evidenced by the fact that this Government’s programme, as we outlined this week, will hit 200,000 homes by 2017.
I hope to work with Jane Hunt in a Conservative Government. I visited her in Nottingham South, where she is fighting hard to ensure that we get even stronger Conservative representation in this place. She wants to be part of a Conservative Government who would build 200,000 homes for first-time buyers. Not only will we offer first-time buyers a chance to benefit from Help to Buy, which has allowed tens of thousands of families to get on to the housing ladder with a reduced deposit following the economic farce and crash that we inherited, but we will go further by giving them a 20% discount, making the achievement of buying a first home more open to more people.
The hon. Members for Nottingham South and for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) and I have spent many times at the Dispatch Box in the past few months in full agreement, so it is probably a healthy return to normal that we disagree today, but I suggest they go away and read some of the documentation before they come to this place and make comments that are absolutely inaccurate. For example, it is worth having a read of the Hansard transcript of the Communities and Local Government Committee sitting last week, where we made it clear that the right to buy programme is delivering on the replacement of homes in the way it was designed. There is an interesting contrast, because the replacement rate was 1:170 under Labour. Opposition Members should be very aware of that. It is important to understand that with the starter homes—it is clear in the documentation that the Government have put out—we are looking at making available land that has not been viable before. We are doing that without section 106 agreements and we are reducing regulation for developers so that they can offer those homes at a minimum discount of 20%.
I will finish the point I am making. The hon. Ladies have made a fair few interventions today and I want to respond to the points raised in the short time we have left. There is no direct cost to buying those homes at that discount. It makes home buying affordable to the very people that the hon. Member for York Central (Sir Hugh Bayley) mentioned. Some of those who have not been able, even with Help to Buy, to get on the ladder will be able to link Help to Buy with a starter home to make house buying accessible. From day one, fixing the housing market and the economy have been top priorities for us in government.
Not at the moment, no. We have channelled new investment into every area of the housing market. We have cut the deficit to keep interest rates low for investors and home buyers. We have introduced a wide range of measures to get Britain building again, and that plan is working. More than 500,000 home have been built. There are 700,000 more homes in England, with house building at its highest level since 2007.
When I talk to developers in York, they say that there are two constraints: one is the lack of land and the other is the lack of building materials. There has been a shortage of bricks. What are the Government doing to ensure that the supply chain delivers enough technically qualified builders and enough building materials to build the number of houses they seek?
We see in London the effects of an untrammelled Tory Administration. Private developers have free reign. There is less affordable housing. Where it is affordable, it is 80% of private rents. That applies to a number of sites, as we have highlighted. Is that the Minister’s ambition if he is in power after the election?
As I have outlined, the ambition is to ensure that we are building the houses that this country needs. Those 200,000 starter homes will give people opportunities that the Labour party simply cannot match. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford—my predecessor—outlined, we are at the start of a programme that is building affordable housing at the fastest rate the country has seen in more than 20 years.
The hon. Member for York Central made a good point. People often expect the challenge for the development industry over the past couple of years to have been land supply, but it is not, thanks to the changes that we made to the top-down rigours and structures in planning that stopped development under Labour. Through that, our driving of planning locally and because we have kept interest rates low, we are seeing benefits. Some 240,000 homes have been given planning permission in the past 12 months. Members touched on the changes the Government have made to finance for small building projects, which have made that finance available. We went further a couple of months ago. One area that developers consistently mention is the supply chain. I was delighted yesterday to reopen a brick factory that shut down in 2008 during Labour’s recession. It reopened on Monday and will deliver 2 million bricks a year to the industry.
The construction industry is working and hiring at the fastest rate since 1997, and the hon. Gentleman is right that that delivers the second challenge to the industry, which is skills. One thing we can all do—I hope that all parties agree on this—is encourage more people to come into the sector. It is a phenomenally rewarding career, with wide opportunities at home and, potentially, abroad. There are a wide range of careers in the industry. We need to change some of the perceptions of the construction industry to encourage more people into it. That is why I hosted a skills summit with the Minister for Skills and Equalities, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles) just before Christmas at the fantastic new Olympic park. Developers, apprentices and colleges discussed those issues to try to ensure that we are delivering the skills we need for the future. Construction is no doubt one of the opportunities we have to see more jobs coming to this country, beyond those we have already seen.
Does the Minister agree that for parts of the north of England, such as the area I represent, it is important that we focus not only on new build homes, but also on bringing long-term empty properties back into use? I thank him for the support he has provided to Pendle borough council. We have done fantastic work to reduce the number of empty homes in the borough from more than 2,000 to just 1,200.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. I know from when I visited his constituency that he makes that point passionately and has worked hard with the excellent leadership of Pendle borough council to develop that work. Earlier, Members talked about the work that is often unsung. The work to bring empty homes back into use under this Government has been phenomenal. Empty homes are at the lowest level pretty much since records began. That is a big step forward in replacing and moving forward from that loss of 420,000 socially rented homes under Labour, as Members have touched on.
No, I will conclude, as there is only a short time left. Over the next Parliament, we will build more affordable housing at a faster rate than at any time in the past 20 years. Our first priority has been to ensure that we get the public finances back under control. We knew that public spending had to be constrained. We have to live within our means, and that is part of the problem we inherited with the Labour Government’s fiscal mess.
We have given housing associations the tools they need to build more homes. The changes we have made will from April give certainty and stability to social tenants and landlords alike. We have protected social tenants from large rent increases. Our strong economic record has allowed us to offer housing guarantees to housing associations, which mean that they are borrowing at the cheapest rate in the sector’s history. That has helped to provide more than £1 billion of support to affordable homes across the UK. All sectors need to be delivering, even social housing.
The hon. Member for Cambridge and others touched on the issue of building by councils. We have to be responsible with borrowing, and the borrowing that councils do has an impact on the public sector borrowing requirement, so there are no plans to lift that cap. As part of our long-term economic plan, however, we have incentivised councils to build. The power of competence has allowed them to move forward. We made more money available last summer for those who needed headroom and wanted to borrow more. Councils have more powers and greater freedoms to deliver the housing they need. We need to build more houses in this country. We have a fixed, strong, long-term economic plan that gives us a secure economy to deliver those houses and the jobs that are the benefit from that house building. We are delivering for those who want to buy a home of their own to give security for themselves and their families.
Local Suicide Prevention Plans
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray.
This debate comes after a report by the all-party group on suicide and self-harm prevention, as well as the publication of the most recent suicide statistics two weeks ago. I want to start with a quote from someone who gave evidence to the all-party group. It was the most powerful statement that we received. Speaking on behalf of one of the London authorities, the person said:
“People don’t want to talk about sad subjects…I could get dozens of people in a room for mental health but not suicide…I had maybe four or five people in the room for a suicide meeting, out of an invitation list of dozens who had attended similar events on the subject of mental health.”
There is the problem. People do not want to talk about sad subjects. They do not want to look at suicide. It is too painful and too difficult. They avoid tackling a problem that blights the lives of far too many people in this country.
The all-party group requested information from all 152 local authorities in England. Eventually, after some poking with a sharp stick and freedom of information requests, all but two replied. The data revealed a shocking lack of understanding of the basic difference between suicide and mental health. Some people think that if someone is suicidal, surely they have a mental health problem, but it depends on the definition of mental health. They almost certainly will not have a classified mental illness. It is generally acknowledged that three quarters of people who take their own life have never been near mental health services. It would be wrong to assume a close working correlation—that if someone is working to prevent mental health problems, they are helping to prevent suicide.
The most worrying finding of all was that a third of local authorities in England had no suicide prevention action plan whatever. A third did not undertake suicide audit work, and 40% had no multi-agency suicide prevention group. That is totally unacceptable. Mr Gray, you and I have spent some time over the past couple of months looking at the importance of having a strategic plan and knowing what one is trying to achieve and the required outcomes. Across England, a third of local authorities have no strategy—nothing at all. They are doing nothing to prevent preventable deaths, and 40% have no multi-agency suicide prevention group.
This does not require big money. It is not about expensive drugs. It is about putting time and effort into looking at what the problem is locally and how it can be tackled, and then pulling together the agencies that can work together to deliver a plan. That does not seem too big an ask to prevent an avoidable death, yet for a third of local authorities in England it is too big an ask. That is shocking. I hope that the Minister will approach those local authorities and say, “Things need to be better”. All Members whose local authorities do not have such a plan and action group ought to be proactively telling them that they are wrong.
I thank my hon. Friend for her question. We are both Welsh MPs, and we know how dire the situation is in Wales. The suicide rate in Wales is 15.6 deaths per 100,000—the highest in the UK. That is perhaps part of what drives me. I know that we have our own problems in Wales, but the matter is devolved to the Welsh Assembly. The all-party group’s work helps to highlight the problems here in England. After Wales, Scotland has the next highest rate, followed by Northern Ireland and the north-east of England. There is a serious problem in Wales that we must tackle as well.
People cannot be complacent if their area has a low level of suicide, because facts change, deaths change, and the figures change. At one point, the Isle of Wight had a very low suicide rate, but now it is higher, and it is considered to have an average rate. It has gone from low to average—that is a rise. We cannot assume that because the suicide rate is currently low it will remain that way.
The report highlighted particular concerns about London. It shows poor levels of suicide prevention planning, but also low levels of deaths. That does not make sense: not only the lack of action planning, but everything about the demographic profile of London and some of its regions would suggest that normally there would be a higher level of deaths in certain local authorities. Something must be done to examine what is happening, because either the data are wrong, and what is really happening is being hidden, or something very special is happening in London that provides some sort of insulation against suicide. We need to understand that. The age-standardised rate of death in London is 7.9 per 100,000, compared with Wales’s rate of 15.6. The gap is huge and must be addressed.
The most active local authorities and those with the highest rates of death from suicide in England are in the north-east, the south-west and the north-west, areas of social deprivation and high unemployment, and where the so-called economic recovery is not being felt. In those areas, the all-persons rates of death are 13.8, 12.5 and 12.3 respectively. On the whole, local authorities in those parts of the country are active, and the report commended their work. However, that raises new questions. We must look at what those active local authorities are actually doing and how they are spending their time and effort. The importance of local initiatives, local focus and local understanding in suicide prevention is recognised—we need to know the terrain, the population and where the pressure points are—but we must also examine the variation in what is being done across England without apparent consistent reasons for the strategic choices that are made.
For example, in some areas, funding is put into helplines, such as the Samaritans and the Campaign Against Living Miserably—CALM. In others, it is put into training, such as applied suicide intervention skills training—ASIST—and in some into better data collection, such as on self-harm, which the Minister and I have discussed often. Other activities will have gone unreported. With wide variability and without clear indication of the evidence on which the various initiatives are based, however, there are questions about which of those initiatives are more effective and why. We need to be able to understand how our suicide prevention work is working and the best way for local authorities to focus their attentions.
The all-party group concluded that both Public Health England and the national suicide prevention strategy advisory group should examine ways in which local authorities can share information about suicide prevention initiatives that have worked, in order to develop best practice. In addition, central funding of research and evaluation studies into the methodologies used is necessary, so that we can drill down to what is effective and why. In that way we can realistically make a difference with any necessary changes even at a time of economic austerity.
The Minister and I have talked about the importance of suicide audits and of timely information, so that people are not waiting for retrospective information to see if a problem is developing locally. Some authorities have a complete lack of clarity about audit work and that needs to be tackled. Much can be dealt with through better co-ordination with coroners and the provision of timely information by them, but I appreciate that the Minister might have difficulties with that, because coroners fall within the purview of the Ministry of Justice, which is perhaps less focused on the timeliness of information from coroners to help suicide prevention work. That is something that I hope the all-party group will come back to in the next Parliament, because the situation cannot be allowed to continue.
The rate of suicide in this country has generally been on the rise since 2008. Last year the number of people taking their own life increased by 4%. Suicide remains the leading cause of death for men aged between 20 and 34. Last year, 6,233 people in England and Wales died by suicide, which you could describe as a small number—
You would not—I am glad to hear that, Mr Gray, thank you.
Each death by suicide is estimated to have an economic impact of around £l million. The reverberations across communities, families and workplaces are devastating. The suicide rate is a key indicator for the health and well-being of our country, our communities and our way of life. Suicide is not some niche issue that can be ignored by a local authority in its public health role because the numbers are too small. The issue is critical and indicates how healthy and how vibrant our communities and our society are.
The debate is probably the last about suicide in this Parliament, so I want to take the opportunity to make a few final remarks. The Minister and his predecessor, the right hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Burstow), have been active in support of the all-party group and in suicide prevention work. I thank them for their support and acknowledge their work. Despite the failure of local authorities, active third-sector groups such as the Samaritans and individuals touched by suicide have offered support to those struggling to cope with life and to bereaved families. Sports figures and other celebrities have stepped forward to talk about their personal struggles and things that have changed their lives.
The police and other front-line workers are trying to save lives and responding to desperate people on a daily basis. During this Parliament, the role of the police in particular in tackling mental health problems, suicide, missing children and a whole range of other social problems outside their normal crime reduction role has shown their leadership and initiative. The work that the police are now undertaking to draw up a national process for responding to suicide is particularly welcome.
Suicide has not been illegal in this country since 1961, but it continues to carry a stigma, which we need to tackle. We also need to give support to bereaved families; to provide access to services that offer hope and a future for the suicidal; research in order to identify risks, best practice and awareness training that can prevent needless deaths; and local authorities to accept their responsibilities to support the dedicated individuals who already work across the four nations to prevent suicide. Without such individuals, the figures from two weeks ago would have been so much worse. It is time for us to take suicide seriously.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray, I think for the first time. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) on securing the debate and, more importantly, on her leadership on the subject of suicide prevention. Nothing could be more important, and any conversation with those going through bereavement following the death of a loved one through suicide makes us realise just how important it is for us to do better. The impact on those people’s lives is massive—the reverberations that she talked about are enormous. We can talk about the cold economic facts and the cost of £1 million per suicide, but the reverberations and economic impact on the whole family and beyond are incalculable.
The hon. Lady also made a point about the suicide rate varying so much around the country, and said that in some areas it appears to be remarkably low. One of the issues that she and I have talked about is whether suicides are being accurately recorded in inquests. We have a completely shared view on the need, once and for all, to confront the issue of the burden of proof, which is an example of the continuing stigma on suicide. To secure a suicide verdict, it remains necessary to prove the suicide “beyond reasonable doubt”; the only other type of death in which that level of proof applies is unlawful killing. That harks back to when suicide was a criminal offence. It is high time that was changed. I have argued the case in government and will continue to do so—whether in or out of government—in the next Parliament, because the change has to happen.
I congratulate the all-party group on suicide and self-harm prevention on its work, and from the start I want to pick up on the role of the police. In my work on mental health, I have been impressed by some inspiring leadership in police forces across the country. In London, the Metropolitan police have worked brilliantly with mental health trusts. In many areas, police are taking the lead in ending the scandal of people being put into police cells in the middle of a mental health crisis. I applaud them.
I agree. Every person lost to suicide is a tragedy, for loved ones, the community and society as a whole. I was deeply concerned to read the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics, which showed a rise in the suicide rate. Back in 2012, when I launched the suicide prevention strategy for England, we knew that we could not afford to be complacent about suicide, and much remains to be done. The new challenges are now clear, and in the second annual report for the strategy, I called on services, communities and national agencies to be more ambitious than ever before with regard to suicide prevention.
Collectively, I want us to tackle the widespread assumption that suicides are inevitable for a certain proportion of people. That is absolutely not the case. I have had discussions with Professor Louis Appleby, who is the foremost thinker and academic on suicide, and he said that in his 25 years of experience he had never looked at the details of a suicide without seeing ways in which the death might have been prevented. That encapsulates the challenge for public services and, beyond, for society as a whole. Suicide is not inevitable for any individual. We need to get that point across.
In 2014, important steps were taken. In January of that year, we published the consensus statement on information sharing and suicide prevention, signed by the Royal College of Psychiatrists, the Royal College of General Practitioners, the Royal College of Nursing, the British Psychological Society, the British Association of Social Workers, the College of Social Work, the Mental Health Network of the NHS Confederation and the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services. The statement aims to improve information and support for families—that is critical—who are concerned about a relative who may be at risk of suicide, and to support better those who have been bereaved as a result of suicide.
In January 2014, we also published “Closing the Gap: priorities for essential change in mental health”, which sets out 25 changes that we believe it is absolutely necessary for the NHS and the care system to make in the next few years to improve the lives of people suffering from mental ill health, and to reduce health inequalities. It highlights how we will change the way front-line health services respond to self-harm, an issue that the hon. Lady has pursued vigorously, and how we improve crisis care in mental health.
At the start of 2014, the National Suicide Prevention Alliance was launched, facilitated by Samaritans and supported by Department of Health grant funding of £120,000 over 2013-14 and 2014-15. In July, the Department awarded a grant of £556,000 over three years to a partnership between Samaritans and Cruse, the bereavement counselling organisation, to increase support for those bereaved by suicide. Samaritans and Cruse will offer that support, working with organisations locally.
I know, however, that we can still save far more lives. It is a moral imperative that we take this issue seriously. As the hon. Lady will be aware from our previous discussions, I share her concerns about better suicide prevention. There have been a number of recent worrying trends in suicide rates, such as the rise of new suicide methods, such as using helium. The Government are committed to improving mental health services as a whole and reducing the suicide rate.
As the hon. Lady will be aware, the Deputy Prime Minister also shares my concerns, which is why in January he announced our ambition for zero suicides. That ambition has already been adopted in some areas. I pay tribute to the brilliant leaders, including Adrian James, a psychiatrist in Devon, and Joe Rafferty, the chief executive of Mersey Care, who have got organisations in their areas to adopt the ambition and start developing plans to achieve a dramatic reduction in suicide, aiming for zero suicide. That is of course what we should aim for, but it cannot be dictated from Whitehall. It requires real leaders to grasp the opportunity and to be ambitious.
Together we need to create a culture in our country in which everyone can talk about their mental health problems without fear or embarrassment. For that ambition to be fulfilled, it is essential that every part of the NHS commits to it. As I have mentioned, pioneering work in Merseyside, the south-west and the east of England means that health workers are starting to rethink how they care for people with mental health conditions. The Deputy Prime Minister called on the health service to look at the work being done by those three pioneering areas. Adopting those kinds of approaches across the country, with serious commitment, could save thousands of lives. We need to raise our aspirations for mental health, although we need to be clear that zero suicide is not a target but an ambition for organisations to aspire to. Nor is it about blame—that would be unhelpful for staff, for people using services and for communities and families. It is about constant learning—Louis Appleby has described so many examples from over the course of his career—and, critically, applying that learning to improve the system.
We know that many who take their own lives are not in touch with mental health services, a point that the hon. Lady frequently makes. That is why we need to apply the same ambition to primary care services and the wider community. The zero suicide initiative had its origins in Detroit, where a programme has successfully reduced the rate of suicides in in-patient care, with not a single suicide for a period of over two years. Although the study on the claim has not been peer-reviewed, the programme also claims to have reduced the suicide rate across the wider general population—that is the really exciting thing. That is why we need to be willing to learn constantly. We need to work together to challenge the stigma attached to mental ill health and change the way society as a whole thinks about it, starting in local communities.
I read with interest January’s report by the all-party group on suicide and self-harm. I know that the inquiry into local suicide plans concluded that there are significant gaps in the local implementation of the national suicide prevention strategy. I agree that that is a concern. As I have said in writing to the hon. Lady, I am confident that the APPG report will be of great value at local, regional and national levels. We know that it is at the local level that the most effective suicide prevention activity will take place. I am happy to write to those local authorities that have nothing in place, and to copy her into that correspondence.
Both the Department of Health and Public Health England agree that even the areas with comparatively low levels of suicide should aspire to do better. That is why we have challenged services, communities and national agencies to adopt the zero suicide ambition. I also agree with the APPG report that timely and reliable data are a valuable suicide prevention tool. Public Health England is working with police forces and local support agencies to pilot real-time surveillance of local suicides. The primary aim of the pilots is to provide prompt information to front-line local authority and NHS staff to enable them to respond to potential and real local clusters of suicides, and to provide timely support to people bereaved by suicide. Public Health England’s evaluation of the surveillance pilots will identify challenges to data collection at a local level and identify best practice to overcome them. The evaluation of the pilots will be available by the summer.
The national mental health intelligence network is developing a new profiling tool on suicide for release shortly, which will make available suicide rates and trends for the main age and gender groups at both local authority and clinical commissioning group level, so that there can be much more accountability. The tool will provide data on high-risk groups that can be used to inform priorities for local interventions.
I was pleased to see that the APPG welcomed Public Health England’s guidance for developing local suicide prevention action plans. The guidance will be updated later in the year and will incorporate best practice on data collection from the surveillance pilots. The hon. Lady will be aware that the guidance was published after the all-party group’s audit took place; Public Health England will contact all its centres over the coming months to discuss activity in their areas and track progress. Public Health England will publish further support for local authorities on identifying and responding to clusters and frequently used locations for suicides, and will also support local systems in developing and undertaking effective local suicide audits, a point that she raised.
We are also working with the National Suicide Prevention Alliance to help ensure that information is pulled together on its new website, which has been supported by grant funding from my Department. We know that sharing local case studies is important, which is why we included a number in the second annual report in the suicide prevention strategy.
The annual report was written for people working in local services, to pull together the key information that they need to implement the strategy locally. The second report on the strategy highlights the excellent work being done across sectors to prevent suicides, and sets out where efforts need to be concentrated for the next year. Local action, supported by national co-ordination, is essential to suicide prevention. The messages in the report are designed to help local areas focus on the most effective things that can be done to reduce suicides. The report also highlights the APPG’s findings and encourages local areas to use the detailed information from the inquiry in drafting their local suicide plans.
All our work on suicide prevention is part of our wider commitment to give mental health services parity of esteem and equality with physical health services. Investment and achievements in bettering mental health services inevitably have a positive impact on suicide prevention. If we make crisis response in mental health much better, so that people know how to get help at the moment when they need it, that will do so much to help those people get through a moment of crisis. I thank the hon. Lady for pursing this issue so vigorously.
[Sir Alan Meale in the Chair]
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan. I welcome the Minister for Culture and the Digital Economy to his place, and I thank Mr Speaker for allowing time for this vital debate.
This debate is about the management and delivery of broadband, which covers a multitude of sins that I hope we can examine today. Many right hon. and hon. Members have constituents who are not included in the existing broadband roll-out and businesses that are looking to relocate if they cannot get broadband. Therefore, this is a timely debate. I hope to use it to address some of our concerns about the national roll-out of broadband in the UK and the management of Broadband Delivery UK. I will make some civic remarks about the current broadband delivery programme in Devon and Somerset and the work of BT.
It has been more than 20 years since the UK Government published their first Command Paper that was available on the internet. Today, broadband is vital in accessing public services. Since July 2012, the Government have committed to becoming digital wherever possible. The Government Digital Service, which created the gov.uk website—the single point of entry to online services—has provided firm leadership in the digital age, and it even won the Design Museum’s “designs of the year” award in 2013. Putting public services online is not a cost-cutting exercise, but a vital part of streamlining Government services. It makes services easier for the public to use and more responsive to their needs. I commend the Government and the Minister on their work on leading the digital revolution.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this urgent and important debate. Will he deal in his speech with who is responsible for the fact that some areas are below others in getting superfast broadband? Huddersfield and three other Yorkshire towns and cities, which are centres of this country’s manufacturing economy, are among the worst 10 areas, while the top 10 are mainly, although not all, in the south of England. Who does the hon. Gentleman think is holding back some areas of the country? Will he pinpoint the barriers today?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. Naturally, I do not know his area well. Broadband is delivered partly through the Government and partly through companies. There are schemes in place in areas such as Devon and Somerset to connect rural broadband and rural users, and naturally I have had more experience of that. Certainly, the Government’s programme aims to ensure that the cities he mentions are also provided with broadband, but I suspect that he will be given an answer by the Minister.
I am not going to get drawn into giving an exact answer to the hon. Gentleman. I shall come on to that issue later. BT is doing a good job in some areas, but it could do better in others; that is what we all want to see. However, we must recognise that, rightly or wrongly, BT is a major player in delivery, and delivering broadband to all our businesses and residents, wherever they are, is essential.
The Government have been ambitious in their plan to transform broadband in the UK, which has been co-ordinated by Broadband Delivery UK. The Government’s roll-out of superfast broadband has reached more than 1 million homes and businesses across the UK. The £1.7 billion nationwide roll-out is firmly on track to extend superfast broadband to 95% of UK homes and businesses by 2017. The rate at which fibre technology is being rolled out under the programme is rapidly accelerating, and up to 40,000 premises are gaining access every week. A key part of our long-term economic plan is to provide the digital tools that people and businesses need to thrive.
However—there is always a however—the move to online services is in serious danger of leaving thousands of people in digital darkness. The current target of 95% superfast broadband coverage by 2017 still leaves behind 5%. We must also ensure that we get to 95% by 2017. “The final 5%” is a misleading term, as it will not be evenly distributed across the country. Some communities—particularly those in rural areas—are disproportionately affected. More than 10% of the countryside is still without access to broadband in any form, and there are 12,000 premises with no digital footprint whatever.
As a member of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, I took part in the inquiry on rural broadband provision and digital-only services. As our report made clear, the difficult geographical nature of some communities must not be used as an excuse for a lack of broadband or poor broadband speeds. Those challenges should encourage investment and innovation in new types of technology.
I join other Members in congratulating my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. He is right to praise what the Government have done so far, but he is also right to talk about the growing digital divide. It is important that we get superfast broadband to the final percentage of rural communities. Does he agree that, to get to those rural communities, we need to embrace new wireless technology? Ultimately, fibre to the cabinet will not deliver to those communities.
My hon. Friend is exactly right. Our experience in Devon and Somerset is that new technologies have not been used quickly enough in the roll-out of broadband. BDUK is beginning to pick up and pilot some new technologies, but more should have been done more quickly. One of the purposes of this debate is to say to the Minister and to BDUK that we must deliver broadband faster and look at new technologies. A lot of the technologies are already out there. For example, smaller boxes can be put on to telegraph polls. I am not a technical man, but there are ways to deliver broadband more quickly. I imagine that the problems in Devon and Somerset are similar to those in Yorkshire, so we need to work on them.
I am enjoying my hon. Friend’s speech. Does he agree that the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) is of the essence and that we will not get to 100% without using the technologies that he spoke about? Crucially, those facts were not only predictable and predicted, but were fully known five years ago in 2010, during the discussion about what kind of contract should be let. It was known at the time that the introduction of alternative players is a prerequisite for getting full coverage. Does my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) feel, as I do, rather let down by BT and, to some extent, the Government, given that they did not take account of those important facts five years ago when they contracted with BT?
I thank my hon. Friend very much for his comments. He is right. What happened is that the contracts—certainly, the Devon and Somerset contract, which I know the most about—were far too secretive, so it was difficult for people to know exactly who was going to get broadband and who was not and for other companies to come in and provide it. We are doing better, and it is getting better—I am not here just to beat up BT—but we need firm and friendly criticism. We need to say, “Get on with it. You’ve got the contracts to deliver, so let’s have it done. If you are not going to be able to deliver it, let’s know about it, and if we can get in competition, all the better.”
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way; he is being most generous. I wonder whether he shares my concern that, from my latest meeting with BT, I understand that the universal commitment to a minimum of 2 megabits per second now no longer applies and that some local authorities are trading off more fibre for not having to meet that commitment.
My hon. Friend raises an interesting point. Through some fibre optic systems, it is not possible to deliver the minimum 2 megabits, and we should have known about that sooner and action should have been taken sooner. However, I do not want to be too negative this afternoon; that is not in our interest as hon. Members or that of our residents, wherever they are in the country. We have to say to BT, “You have got behind. Now move forward much more quickly.” I think that it will, but its feet need to be held firmly to the fire, so that it feels pain in order to deliver. It is no good saying to someone that 95% of the country has broadband if they live in an area in which 95% of people do not have it. In some areas, the figures are nearly as low as that. In my constituency, the figure is 22% at the moment, and that is over the whole constituency.
My hon. Friend is being very generous in giving way. Although the focus of this debate is primarily on rural broadband, does he agree that there is a specific issue with urban broadband black spots? BT and Openreach know where those black spots are, but they will not share them with constituency MPs. County councils often know, but will also not share them, and it would be useful if the Minister tackled that issue briefly later.
I entitled this debate in a broad fashion, so it is right for my hon. Friend to raise that point. The black spots are not just in rural areas, as the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) also mentioned. I have a series of questions that I want the Minister to answer at the end of the debate, but I hope that he is taking note of that point; I know that he is working very hard on it. If someone is in an area where they cannot get broadband, they are very frustrated, and when they have heard that packages have been put together to deliver it, that infuriates them even more. We need to be very aware of that.
Before the hon. Gentleman moves off black spots, may I just have one more bite at that? I understand the black spots and the rural dimension, but as this lovely graph shows, nine out of 10 of the top-performing broadband innovations are in the south of England. It is the reverse in the north of England, where the worst-performing areas are. This is not just little black spots in the countryside; they are in major towns and cities. That is why we are so angry.
I repeat that I am sure the Minister is aware of that, and I hope that he can answer the hon. Gentleman’s question. He is right to raise that issue. My constituency has many problems not only in the Blackdown hills and on parts of Exmoor, but on the edge of towns as well, so this is not just about rural broadband.
Does my hon. Friend share my further concern that many people in our very rural communities work from home and whether businesses are in the programme is very much in the lap of the gods? As I understand it, in some local authorities, business premises and industrial estates will be connected as part of the programme, and in others, they will not. If the economy and small businesses matter, surely that should not be an option.
My hon. Friend raises an interesting point. Naturally, some areas may have the cables and cabinets, so it is much easier to deliver there. However, if there is a difficult spot to deliver broadband in, with lots of small businesses, we have to find a way to deliver it. This is not just about businesses, but about our residents. Broadband is very much part of our infrastructure, just as railways and roads are. We will be left behind if we are not connected, so that is the purpose of this debate. I thank her for that intervention.
During the inquiry, we heard from BT that it believes that the current target of 95% coverage by 2017 may slip. Given the resources and the free rein that it has been given, I hope that the Minister will impress upon BDUK the need to hold BT’s feet over the hot coals to get the job done. The target for superfast broadband has changed a number of times. The original date for completion was 2012. For our constituents to have confidence that their homes and businesses will get superfast broadband, it is important that the targets for broadband coverage are not changed again. If BT fails to achieve its targets, there should be a mechanism to hold it to account. That is very much what I want to see.
For my hon. Friend’s benefit, I tell him that we have never changed our targets. We got rid of an unambitious target of 2 megabits at the end of 2012. We had an ambition, which I hope we will reach, of superfast broadband coverage of 90% by the end of 2015, and because of the huge success of this programme, we have added a further target to get to 95% by the end of 2017.
I have huge confidence in the Minister, but as he can imagine, if someone is living in a constituency such as mine, where about 70% or 80% of people are not getting broadband, those figures do not mean an awful lot. Therefore, I urge him to ensure—I know that he will because he is such a wonderful Minister—that they will immediately get their broadband tomorrow. I am being slightly facetious, but let me reiterate that the purpose of this debate is not just to criticise, but to see whether we can do better. I am not criticising the Government, but when there is a contract from BDUK that has Government money, council money, business money and, in fairness, money from BT, let us make sure that it delivers on its promises.
I stand corrected by the hon. Lady. It is indeed our money that is being spent and we expect this service to be delivered.
The National Farmers Union has warned that its members do not have the infrastructure connections to enable fast enough broadband to comply with online Government services, including complying with the new agriculture policy, because all the mapping now has to be done online. I can understand that because of the need to map all the hedgerows, but it is essential that we get broadband out to those businesses.
The Federation of Small Businesses conducted research in July 2014 that shows that 94% of small business owners consider a reliable internet connection as critical to the success of their businesses and that 14% of UK small firms view the lack of a reliable broadband connection as being their primary barrier to growth. That has been recognised by the Government, but this is again about delivery. As small firms become more reliant on a high-quality broadband connection to do business, that will become even more significant in future.
As the EFRA Committee’s report rightly noted,
“2 Megabits per second (Mbps) is already an outdated figure, and 10 Mbps is increasingly recommended as a suitable USC for standard provision.”
The Government must reassess whether the current universal service commitment is still valid and right.
I would like to get a little more parochial. The Connecting Devon and Somerset programme that covers my constituency is on track to deliver superfast broadband to 90% of premises across Devon and Somerset by the end of 2016, up from 64% overall when the programme began. The programme is supported by a £32 million investment from BDUK.
I am pleased that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport announced on 25 February 2014 an additional £22.75 million for rural broadband in Devon and Somerset from the Government’s—from the taxpayer, from us all —£250 million broadband fund. However, my constituency of Tiverton and Honiton is ranked as the 611th worst constituency for broadband out of 650 constituencies. Only 33% of premises have high-speed broadband. A large number of communities in my constituency, such as Upottery, Stockland and Rousdon are being left in digital darkness. Some business owners in parts of Dunkeswell have told me that they may be forced to relocate because of the lack of reliable broadband. I have been working with local campaigners, Graham Long in Upottery and Rebecca Pow in Churchinford and Otterford.
CDS has now published its procurement tender for the next stage of the roll-out, to extend superfast broadband coverage as far as possible in Devon and Somerset, with the aim of getting to 100% coverage by 2020. I welcome the progress made in connecting more premises in Devon and Somerset, but I am deeply disappointed that we are not farther along this road. Communities in my constituency should not have to wait until 2020 for broadband delivery. I do not buy the argument constantly put to me by BDUK that, “It’s all too difficult, Mr Parish.” It is not too difficult, because a contract was given and money has been provided to deliver in those difficult areas. The contract is there to provide exactly what we want—broadband in our rural communities. Greater focus is needed on helping hard-to-reach areas and exploring innovative technologies.
I think that the argument has gone even as far as state aid rules and whether Brussels was involving itself in the letting of contracts and whether being able to extend the existing contract with BT and BDUK was the best way forward. Those types of argument have been used. I am not against BT or what BDUK is doing, but I do feel that not enough competition has been brought into the system to keep BT and BDUK up to the mark.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the issue in Devon and Somerset now is not so much the delivery of the original contract, which is carrying on at its own pace—we are impatient, but it is happening—but the large areas in our constituencies that will not be covered by that contract and that need to catch up with the rest of the counties? I think that that will not be done through big contracts. It will be done through small, individual contracts, with new technologies such as wi-fi, rather than this approach, which I think will fail many people in rural areas.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. He may well be right. One problem that we have with these large contracts—the situation is getting a little better—is that people do not actually know where the broadband will be delivered. If there is an alternative system—satellite, wireless or whatever—people do not necessarily know whether to put private funds into it, because they do not know whether BDUK will actually deliver it to their area. This is the frustrating part of what we are doing. We have all worked hard across the parties to get money. The MPs in Devon and Somerset all signed the letters to get the money and we delivered the money and have the contract, yet individual residents are not getting the broadband. Naturally, they do not like all these figures being bandied about for how much is being delivered if they do not have broadband themselves.
I understand that Connecting Devon and Somerset chose the route that it did because of the lack of bids and the concern over the state aid deadline, but I believe that more could have been done to open the market. At national level, there should have been more work to prevent one company from gaining such a monopoly on publically funded broadband roll-out as BT has achieved. Given the impact of flooding and sea damage on the west country’s transport infrastructure, the provision of high-quality rural broadband has never been more important to the resilience of the south-west and its communities and businesses.
I have a number of questions that I am sure the Minister will be keen to address. Does he believe that BT is providing value for money? I think that that is a very important question for the simple reason that I want to see everyone get broadband. I accept that some areas are very difficult to get to, but surely that is what these contracts are let for. We have to make absolutely sure that we are getting value for money.
Will the Government re-examine the universal service commitment of 2 megabits? What work is the Minister’s Department doing to ensure that survey information is made publically available and that BT is not hamstringing local authorities with spurious confidentiality agreements? What work are the Government doing to pilot new technology to reach the hardest-to-reach areas? Finally, will the Minister examine ways of making BT much more accountable?
I congratulate the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) on securing the debate. I want to give a different perspective on the issue of broadband coverage, coming as I do from one of the most concentrated urban areas in Scotland. At first sight, it might seem strange that someone from a constituency that has superfast broadband to a degree that colleagues would be envious of would complain about lack of coverage, but the fact is that even in my very urban constituency, many areas, covering thousands of homes and businesses, do not have superfast broadband at the moment and do not seem to have any prospect of getting it any time soon.
The projection is that, by 2017, 98% of people will have superfast broadband. That sounds very good and, if it happens, I will obviously be pleased about it, but many of my constituents who are currently affected are somewhat sceptical as to whether that figure will actually be reached and whether some of the current not spots in my constituency—they also exist in other urban areas—will have that level of provision.
We have the problems that I have described in urban areas such as mine because of a fundamental flaw in the arrangements for the roll-out of superfast broadband. It applies not just in my constituency, but in many other urban areas up and down the country. It is the basic problem that Government schemes and funding arrangements do not apply to areas where, it is believed, superfast broadband can be deployed commercially and therefore does not need to be subsidised. However, what then happens is that BT—it normally is BT—decides that it is commercially unviable to provide superfast broadband in certain areas, and nothing seems to change to make that move a little more quickly. It is Catch-22: these areas are commercially viable, so they do not get the subsidy—the financial arrangements—but we are told that it is commercially unviable for the market to provide in those areas.
I have lots of examples from my constituency. You will be relieved to hear that I will not go through them all today, Sir Alan, but they involve some incredibly densely populated areas. Quite often in new build developments of hundreds of flats, it is for some reason not regarded as commercially viable to provide superfast broadband. Of course, there are business locations in the area as well. We find instances in which the cabinets are there, but there is no indication of when superfast broadband will be provided. Even more frustratingly, we have a number of locations where the fibre-optic cable is in the street, running past particular houses, blocks of flats and blocks of offices, but there is no indication whether those properties will actually get superfast broadband, although someone down the street will obviously do so.
In Edinburgh city centre, the heavy concentration of commercial activity means that the residential properties are relatively dispersed, so again it has not been regarded as commercially viable to provide superfast broadband to those properties. There is something wrong when houses in the centre of some of our most concentrated urban areas still do not have a clear date for obtaining superfast broadband. I have raised the issue time and again with various levels of government—UK Government, Scottish Government and local government—and all I seem to get is an assurance that it will be all right eventually, but the problems persist. I have raised some concerns with the Minister in the past, but I urge him to look again at some of the cases in my constituency. I have had more cases over the past few weeks, and I am happy to provide him with the details.
I also want the Minister and his counterparts in the devolved Administrations to look at ways of ensuring that as many properties as possible in the areas in which contracts are rolled out have the opportunity to access superfast broadband. That should not be beyond the wit of Government, regulators or companies. If the contractual arrangements for roll-out are too far advanced in many parts of the country, as I suspect they may be, it should be the responsibility of Government to look at schemes to fill the gaps. We want to find some way of ensuring that not spots in urban areas, just as in rural areas, get superfast broadband. That is important not only because people enjoy having it, but because it is, in many cases, essential for business, essential for communication and essential in a world in which more and more of the transactions of everyday life—including contact with Government, both local and central—are carried out online. People who do not have access to superfast broadband will lose out, and that needs to be addressed in urban areas as well as in rural areas, which have different problems but which suffer from the issues that affect us all.
I am afraid that I do not share the optimism of my colleague the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) about what will happen in Devon and Somerset. The Government’s own figures show that only 41% of residents and businesses in Somerset have access to superfast broadband. That goes nowhere near meeting the needs of local people or rural businesses in my constituency. Effective, reliable and affordable broadband is essential in the 21st century, and it is fairly shaming that we can in no way compare ourselves with places such as Korea, which seems to have magnificent broadband coverage. It is a bit of a shame to have to say that. [Interruption.] Did the Minister want to say something?
Okay. Effective, reliable and affordable broadband is essential to keep people connected and ensure that our rural economy prospers. I do not understand how providing superfast rural broadband appears to mean strengthening the broadband in towns, where we have some coverage already, while coverage peters out as we move into rural areas. Surely, the whole point of rural broadband should have been to start in areas where there is little or no coverage and work back towards the places that have at least some coverage. The whole thing seems to be back to front, as far as I am concerned.
The Minister is always very optimistic and loyal about this project, and I would be delighted to share his optimism, but I have no idea how the final 59%, let alone the final 5%, of people in Somerset will be anywhere near getting some sort of decent service by 2020. The idea of getting to 90% by 2015 and 95% by 2017 is an utter dream. I would also like the Minister to tell me what superfast broadband is. Every time I have asked BT the question, it has fluffed the answer. I want to know what people in my patch can expect by way of an upload speed and a download speed.
I am now ready to intervene. May I briefly put on the record that as far as I am aware, 21,000 premises in the hon. Lady’s constituency will be covered under phase 1, which is getting to 90%? That is effectively the same amount as were covered commercially. The figure of 21,000 and the term superfast broadband are audited, so we do not say that those premises are reached unless they are getting speeds of 24 megabits a second.
I thank the Minister for that clarification. If he has information about where that will happen, that leads me to my next question. Every time I have asked where the not spots are, I have been given all kinds of maps showing different colours. Most of my constituency is under consideration, or somebody is looking at the plumbing, or whatever. It seems unlikely that anyone will be able to make any headway in those areas. If the Minister is that sure, however, I am delighted.
I would be very grateful to have that information from him so that people who have no coverage can make alternative arrangements. I have heard reports, from my part of the country and others, of parish councils attempting to find out what is going on, and arranging for their own parishes to go online through some alternative to BT. Just when they have been about to hit the button and go for it, BT has suddenly come back to them and said, “Actually, we are going to do your bit after all.” That is not very competitive. If BT is not going to be up front, it is not fair for it to come back to communities that are trying to make their own arrangements and say, “Don’t do that, because we are coming in anyway.” That is slightly anti-competitive practice, and it does not look good, even if it is the truth.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and various other parts of Government, such as the Rural Payments Agency, have moved to digital. However, according to the figures that we have been given by the Country Land and Business Association, more than 10% of the countryside is without access to any broadband, and 12% has no digital footprint whatsoever. The trouble is that our suppliers expect farm businesses to be fully interactive online. Even though the basic infrastructure is not in place and Government-funded schemes are not delivering to remote and difficult-to-connect communities, they still have to use the various basic internet systems. Farmers find it difficult to innovate and to use new farming technology and software, which has to be downloaded from the internet. They also find it difficult to comply with other Government regulations by, for example, submitting VAT returns, getting vehicles taxed and processing animal tagging.
In my constituency, accessing the internet is also vital for jobseeker’s allowance claimants. Those who are looking for work, for whatever reason, have to show that they have applied for every possible job opportunity online. If they do not have internet access, it is absolutely impossible to meet the criteria, and their benefits may be stopped. Some of my constituents have to travel some distance to use the internet. They have to go to Bridgwater or to Wells, and there is little public transport. For people who are challenged financially and have little money because they have no job, but who are trying to find themselves work, it is incredibly difficult to compete and get the jobs that they need and want.
Is not much of the problem caused by the hugely deceptive nature of percentages? We talk about a large percentage being covered without realising that in Somerset and the surrounding area, that means the fleshpots of Taunton and Exeter, and probably places such as Tiverton and Honiton. That relatively small percentage of people covers a large area of my constituency and that of my hon. Friend, and they are the people who do not get broadband and do not get mobile phone coverage worth having. In fact, they do not get anything, and it is time that they were properly served.
I tend to agree. Rather than looking at percentages, we should look at people. Back in the 1980s—I can remember all of this—we had British Rail trying to move trains from A to B and forgetting that its job was to move passengers from A to B. Exactly the same lack of focus on people has led us to where we are with broadband.
When my children were in senior school, they found the internet essential because they had to access their homework online. When they were at college, they had to send all their submissions online to their tutors, and they have to do exactly the same thing now that they are at university. It is difficult for someone who has no broadband and who lives some distance from the library, if they cannot drive or do not have a car and there are no buses. How the hell is anybody meant to be able to do these things?
I have a wonderful constituent who is 94 years old, who moved into Cheddar and found herself waiting weeks and weeks for some sort of connection. She used Skype, Twitter and Facebook to keep in contact with members of her family, who were all over the world. We must remember that in order to keep older members of the community living in their own homes, it is absolutely essential they can access services such as having their heavy shopping brought in from the supermarket by ordering online. They can still pop out to the shops every day and do the small items of shopping. Using the internet in such a way will help to keep them in their own homes.
Many of the businesses in my area are tourism-based, and if they do not have a reliable online connection and cannot use broadband at the right speed, they do not have a competitive edge. It is also difficult to buy, sell and communicate if the connection drops out all the time. Without a decent broadband connection, life is so much harder.
I wrote to the Competition and Markets Authority asking it to look into BT’s apparent refusal to join an open bidding process to increase high-speed fibre broadband access in Somerset. There is slight confusion over this, but it looks as though BT has held back information that might have enabled other organisations to join the bidding process. By saying that that information is commercially sensitive, it has prevented anybody from being involved in tendering for the phase 2 superfast extension programme.
I have no doubt the hon. Lady is right that BT has engaged in anti-competitive behaviour, and broadband is now a regular source of complaint among residents and businesses in my surgeries in Norfolk. However, is the situation not even worse? BT inflated its budgets for the BDUK rural broadband programme, thereby obtaining more state aid than it was entitled to. At the same time, it invested less in the programme than it communicated to the Government.
Order. Minister, quite a few Members want to speak, and the debate should not be turned into a question and answer session between you and one Back Bencher or another. It is much more important that we have as full a debate as we can. In the generous amount of time that remains, you will get an opportunity to reply to all the questions put by Members on both sides of the Chamber.
I am pleased that the Minister is so keen, but I take your point, Sir Alan.
My next point relates to the consequences of using the closed tender option in the Connecting Devon and Somerset bid. It is likely that all the confidentiality clauses required by BT, which shrouded the phase 1 programme, will carry straight over into phase 2. There can, therefore, be no demonstration of value for money to the public. BT will not invest in the programme to take coverage above 95%. Its focus must be on shareholder value, so there is no incentive for it to do that. People will not know whether they will get faster broadband under phase 2 until BT sees fit to tell them. Businesses and individuals cannot plan their futures on that basis.
Another aspect is the number of constituents who contact me about the allied organisation, BT Openreach, and I have spoken to the Minister before about my dismay at its pretty appalling service. In my village, lines went into an office and shop connection, but giving the broadband connection some life seems to require a bloke coming 20 miles across Somerset to flick a switch. When he fails to turn up, and businesses are not online, as they need to be, that makes things difficult, because there is no way for people to contact someone who can tell them what is happening.
We have been talking about digital darkness, and I will finish on a slightly lighter note—actually, it is not a lighter note, but something that filled me with horror. Last week, I asked the Prime Minister what he was going to do about the 41% coverage in Somerset. He told me:
“All local councils now have searchable websites”—[Official Report, 25 February 2015; Vol. 593, c. 318.]
He said people can therefore see when they can expect to get broadband in their area by going online, which is brilliant—if they are online.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan. I warmly congratulate the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) on securing the debate.
I have been very focused on this issue in the last five years, first as a member of the Public Accounts Committee, which has looked in detail at the rural broadband programme and made a number of criticisms of it. I have also been to a series of debates—in fact, so many that I have seen more of the Minister this last fortnight than I have of my husband. That is not a joke, sadly, much as I like the Minister.
In my constituency, I have constant complaints from businesses and residents about connection times, speeds, unreliability of service and, of course, cost. I represent one of the most urban areas of the UK. We are a powerhouse for the future of the tech economy. We have frequent visits from the occupants of Nos. 10 and 11 Downing street. The Prime Minister has dubbed my area tech city. There is, therefore, great Government pride in the area, but we have pretty poor broadband. When I complain, I am told, “It’s okay: two thirds of businesses in Shoreditch have a connection.” However, that means that a third of businesses in this critical area do not.
The House of Lords Digital Skills Committee has now joined the cacophony on this issue. Given that the Committee is in the other place, it is worth putting on record its very first recommendation, which is about hard infrastructure:
“We are concerned about the pace of universal internet coverage and the delivery of superfast broadband. In particular, we find it unacceptable that, despite Government efforts, there are still urban areas experiencing internet ‘not-spots’, which is hampering universal coverage and the UK’s international competitiveness.”
It goes on to say, and I agree, that broadband should be seen as a utility—something that is necessary, just as water and electricity are.
A report by Digital Business First says that 10 million UK premises—homes and businesses—are unable to access superfast broadband. As the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath) rightly highlighted, there are lies, damned lies and statistics. A few percentages here and there do not reveal the real trouble and pain that many businesses and residents face.
Let me give just a couple of examples. A resident in the Victoria park area, on the edge of Hackney, near Tower Hamlets, worked from home. However, his broadband service was so poor that he moved out of Hackney to get better coverage. I will not go into the numbers of businesses that have had problems, but I echo the comments of the hon. Member for Wells (Tessa Munt) about the poor quality of service. It takes a long time to get an Openreach engineer to visit. The Perseverance Works on Hackney road is a consortium—a co-operative, in effect—of businesses, and it took ages to get an engineer to visit it. When an engineer does visit, they do a survey, but it does not seem to belong to the customer, even though they paid for it. It is really difficult to find out exactly what is happening—the lack of transparency about the service is poor, and it really needs to be improved.
The Public Accounts Committee is now seeing the next phase of rural broadband being rolled out. Some real alternatives are being proposed. Finally, to pick up the point from the hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon), alternative technologies are being promoted, albeit very late in the day, and only, of course, after the bulk provision has been cherry-picked. The cost envelope for the more difficult-to-reach areas is that much higher, which makes it much harder to deliver services.
I said I represent Shoreditch, which is an international hub of tech progress, but we are falling behind. Shoreditch is, frankly, a national embarrassment, when we consider the place it occupies in the world. It is second only to silicon valley in terms of the investment going into tech businesses, but broadband speeds, and upload speeds in particular, are very poor.
Tech City News does a weekly video round-up, which I recommend to the Minister, as it discusses cutting edge digital technology around the world and in Shoreditch. I have mentioned it before, but it is worth emphasising that the former editor, who has just moved on, says that it would be filmed and taken to his house to be uploaded, because the speeds around Old Street roundabout were too slow, and it took too long. If that is not a national embarrassment I do not know what is. I am always embarrassed to repeat that story in Parliament, as I do not want to dump on my area, but it is time the Government took that seriously. Perhaps the next time the Prime Minister and Chancellor visit, they will be able to celebrate success, rather than tripping over failures. In South Korea the aim is a national 5G wireless network. We need to look for the same. We should aim for more one-gigabit cities. There is some progress, and some companies are keen on achieving it.
I have some questions for the Minister and would welcome answers in writing if he cannot answer now. As part of the approach to improving access to and roll-out of superfast, the Government have put out an advertising programme, which—paraphrasing only slightly—says, “Superfast broadband: it’s coming—would you like it?” I would like to know the cost of the advertising programme, given that the Government have made great play of cutting back on advertising. How are they measuring success? What discussions has the Minister had with the Department for Communities and Local Government on planning rules to make it easier for other technologies to get into urban and rural areas and deliver superfast speeds, where the cable and fibre optics will not deliver?
More one-gigabit cities should be an aspiration of both the Government and the Opposition, so that things do not fall apart upon a change of Government. I hope we can be united in our aspiration. We need more collaborations such as that in York between the far-sighted Labour city council and TalkTalk, which wants to roll out superfast in its own way. It is important to give local authorities power over such contracts. More could be done to strengthen the arm of councils that want to follow that lead.
We need more competition in the market. That involves planning issues. Changes are needed to planning law to require landlords to provide what I would describe in simple terms as reasonable access for the installation of technology, particularly on high buildings. That would allow satellite and mobile superfast, for example, to fill the gaps. That might be more challenging in rural areas, and there might be other planning issues to do with rights of way across land, particularly agricultural land. Certainly in urban areas, however, it would be a fairly simple solution. All that it would require would be joined-up Government action and real will, not just on the part of the Minister, who, as the hon. Member for Wells said, always comes to our debates very optimistic about the programme, but on the part of his colleagues in other Departments. They also need to take the matter seriously. Will the Minister outline what conversations he has with Ministers in other Departments? Can he reassure us that they take the issue at least half-seriously? Are they, as I hope, stepping up to the mark to make sure our constituents no longer have to suffer the ignominy of the supposed superfast broadband programme, which is not delivering?
It is a pleasure to serve again under your chairmanship, Mr Meale. I congratulate the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) on securing the debate. The roll-out of superfast broadband has been a priority of his since his election to the House in 2010, and it is to his credit that he has been pushing it on behalf of his constituents, and businesses in his area—and talking about the national issue as well.
The debate has been excellent and is very important. We have heard that broadband roll-out is an issue that affects not only Devon and Somerset, and rural areas, but urban areas, too. We have heard about problems in Edinburgh, Hackney and Huddersfield. However, I want to mention the most important place of all—Hartlepool. I live in the town of Hartlepool, and not in an outlying village. Given that Hartlepool is the centre of the universe, it strikes me as odd that it takes me 10 minutes to download something from iTunes. The idea of watching the new series of “House of Cards” on Netflix is a pipe dream that I could not possibly think about. BT has said it is because my neighbours and I are too far away from the cabinet—therefore it is not acceptable for us to have superfast broadband. That cannot be right for constituents and households in an urban area. However, things can be even worse than that: this morning I was speaking to my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) about this debate, and she said that businesses in Trafford Park, the largest industrial estate in Europe, are still waiting for superfast broadband. Someone from one of the businesses there told her that they were paying 10 times the price, for a fifth of the average speed.
That cannot be the right approach, because broadband is essential for the future competitiveness of the country. We are in the midst of a third industrial revolution based on digital technology. The digital revolution is already transforming the way commerce is transacted, social interaction conducted, and public services provided to citizens. It will continue to do that—indeed, its impact on society and the economy will accelerate. It will affect skills, employment and other things. It is not sufficient for firms to say, “We will have an add-on digital strategy.” Digitisation and technology will be intrinsic to everything that the economy, Government and society do. If we in this country are to enjoy rising living standards and improved productivity, and to maintain and enhance competitiveness in the global economy, we must have the ambition of being the leading digital nation, both in skills and in hard infrastructure, which is crucial.
In many respects the UK is well placed to achieve that. We are presently ranked ninth among the leading global digital economies by the World Economic Forum’s global competitiveness index. We have a culture of innovation and invention, and we have a digitally savvy population, in many respects, but we must go further, and we could do more. It seems to me that in 2015 the country is at a tipping point with respect to what we need to do to enhance our competitiveness in the digital world. The countries that rank higher than the UK are Switzerland, Singapore, the US, Finland, Germany, Japan, Hong Kong and the Netherlands. All of those are our competitors.
In a telling speech, the hon. Member for Wells (Tessa Munt) mentioned South Korea. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) mentioned, too, it announced last year that it would deliver a national 5G wireless network offering speeds of 1 gigabit per second by 2020. It is striking that the nations I mentioned have all invested in digital skills as a priority, but have also prioritised digital infrastructure, with a particular emphasis on driving universal access and usage. We have heard time and again that digital businesses can locate anywhere in the world, and that they will often go where connectivity is amenable; but we have also heard that 10 million UK premises are unable to access superfast broadband.
For all the much-vaunted notion of London as a tech hub and Shoreditch as tech city, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch said in her excellent and knowledgeable contribution, there are connectivity problems in a place that is often seen as the national centre of the digital economy. The city’s average broadband speed ranked 26th out of 33 European capitals. London has an average speed of 25.44 megabits per second, whereas Bucharest, at No. 1 in Europe, has speeds of 80.14 megabits per second. As we have heard in the debate, and as I have mentioned, the UK suffers from internet not spots, in which businesses cannot connect and therefore cannot compete and grow.
The country suffers far too much from patchy coverage. I think my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch has already mentioned last month’s excellent report of the Digital Skills Committee in the other place, but it is worth referring again to such an excellent report and recommendation. It made it clear that the pace of universal internet coverage and the delivery of superfast broadband should be a matter of concern; universal coverage and the UK’s international competitiveness are being hampered. Yet as the National Audit Office set out, the Government’s rural broadband project will be delivered 22 months late. Only nine local projects will, it is estimated, meet the programme’s target of supplying 90% of premises with superfast broadband by May 2015. The Government now say that the date could be December 2017, but BT has stated that the programme may
“end up being in 2018”.
Why has that been allowed to happen?
That question was also asked by the hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon) who, like my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch, is an excellent member of the Public Accounts Committee. Why have the Government structured the policy and the institutional architecture in that particular way? What did the Government do to ensure that the targets were achieved? Why was action not taken sooner to ensure that delivery times were met?
On phase 2 of the rural broadband roll-out, why did the Government not prepare a comprehensive and separate business case, based on the findings of phase 1? The Minister will be aware of the NAO’s progress update on the delivery of the programme, which was published some five weeks ago. Is he concerned about the NAO’s comments that phase 2, currently at the procurement stage, will face limited competition, given that BT is the only participant in the BDUK procurement framework?
We have heard time and again about BT’s role in the process. The Minister will be aware of the remarks by the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee following the publication of the Committee’s report on the roll-out of the rural broadband programme:
“The Government has failed to deliver meaningful competition in the procurement of its £1.2 billion rural broadband programme, leaving BT effectively in a monopoly…BT’s monopoly position should have been a red flag for the Department. But we see the lack of transparency on costs and BT’s insistence on non-disclosure agreements as symptomatic of BT’s exploiting its monopoly position to the detriment of the taxpayer, local authorities and those seeking to access high speed broadband in rural areas.”
On that basis, and given the comments made by hon. Members this afternoon, does the Minister really think that we have a healthy, competitive market that promotes good competition and encourages new entrants, who will drive down costs, drive up quality and access, and improve our country’s competitiveness?
Given the structure of BDUK, and given the structure of the process introduced by the Government, why were options other than that monopoly position not considered? Is the Minister concerned that the Government’s handling of the process means that a single private company will be able to reinforce its already strong position in the market, to the detriment of new competition? What will he do to ensure that the excellent local initiatives that we have heard about—the City of York council and TalkTalk initiative being a particularly good example—are encouraged as much as possible? We need local, innovative solutions that address specific local circumstances.
I am interested in the important question of who owns national infrastructure assets. What happens to the £1.7 billion public sector investment, in terms of BT’s assets and infrastructure? Is the Minister content that, in this case, vast amounts of taxpayers’ money has been used to improve a company’s balance sheet? We have heard about the importance of transparency. What is he doing to improve the transparency of data, access and cost base? I fully respect “commercial in confidence” agreements, but why are non-disclosure requirements allowed? How do they promote competition? What will he do to change that?
I have specific points about individual funds established by the Government. How much of the £20 million rural community broadband fund has been spent, and what has it achieved? Similarly, what proportion of the super-connected cities programme has been allocated, and what take-up has resulted from that programme?
This has been an important debate, because connectivity for our businesses and homes will be crucial in the 21st century economy, which will be led by a digital revolution. We should see broadband as a national utility, just as electricity, water and transport were in previous decades. Does the Minister need to think in a wider and more co-ordinated way across Whitehall to ensure that happens? Do planning and access to land also need to be altered to ensure that we can highlight and prioritise this important function of future competitiveness? Other countries are speeding ahead with connectivity, at the cost of our own competitiveness, prosperity and social inclusion.
Time and again, we have heard questions from hon. Members about value for money, accessibility, connectivity, availability and the services that businesses and constituents have received. I hope that the Minister will take on board the serious questions that have been asked today, and I hope he will be able to address them in the time remaining.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan. I apologise for my Tigger-like behaviour when I kept intervening earlier in the debate. As you rightly predicted, I now have plenty of time to set out the Government’s stall in response to the excellent contributions that we have heard.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) for securing this important debate and for making his points in such a fair and balanced manner. I also thank the hon. Member for Wells (Tessa Munt) for her usual forthright remarks. I thank the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) for his long contribution, and I thank the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) for spreading the rumour about us, which will no doubt spread like wildfire thanks to the availability of 4G in and around Westminster. I am grateful for the interventions by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath), to whom I am paying homage with my extensive facial hair. Of course, I am always grateful for the response by the spokesman for the official Opposition, the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright), a man for whom I have the utmost admiration, even if I do not always agree with him.
To utter that terrible phrase that tends to kibosh Tory Ministers, I will begin by going back to basics. I will set out in some detail exactly what the Government set out to achieve, and I will try to do that in as non-partisan a fashion as possible, despite the fact that this may be our last broadband debate before Dissolution. We came into government with the previous Government having set a target of 2 megabits of universal broadband by 2012, which was perhaps a perfectly respectable target at the time. The then Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Surrey (Mr Hunt), looked at that target and said that it was not ambitious enough and that 2 megabits was not the kind of speed that people would expect to receive as the programme rolls out, and it is fair to say that his prediction was absolutely right. Indeed, one or two of the rural lobbying groups, possibly including the Country Land and Business Association, are now effectively asking for a universal commitment of 10 megabits. Most people now regard 7 or 8 megabits as the kind of broadband speed they need to do what one might call the basics, even though some people argue that 1 or 2 megabits is what people need to use the iPlayer.
We had to find money for the programme and get state aid approval before letting the contract. We found £530 million from the TV licence fee, some of which was originally set aside for the digital television switchover, on which there was an underspend. We knew the core figure, and we decided that it should be match funded by local authorities, obviously not just to increase the available pot of money but to give local authorities ownership of the programmes. That was a conscious decision, and some people might say that it was a wrong decision, but I think it has proved to be right that local authorities will own and co-fund the contracts and will be partners in delivering in local areas.
We can dip into other pots of money. European money, for example, has been important in certain areas, and let us not forget the contribution of the company that eventually won the contracts—BT. This morning I looked at figures showing that some £410 million is being spent on delivering rural broadband in Scotland, with £120 million of that coming from BT. BT is not simply an open mouth into which taxpayers’ gold is being poured; BT is making its own contribution.
I agree with all hon. Members representing rural areas who have spoken today—the hon. Members for Hackney South and Shoreditch and for Edinburgh North and Leith represent urban constituencies—and recognise that leaving broadband delivery to the marketplace is not enough. It does not make commercial sense for a private company to invest many millions of pounds upfront when it is unlikely to get a return on its investment because, frankly, there simply are not enough people in rural areas to take up broadband services. A subsidy was needed. We made it clear from the outset that, with that money and this scheme, we thought that superfast broadband speeds could reach 90% of the population. Again, with the benefit of hindsight, people might criticise us and ask, “Why didn’t you go for 100% from the very beginning?” However, we went for 90%. In effect, we thought that was achievable and realistic; it was a promise that we could keep. The programme has gone well.
I pay tribute to the Minister for his commitment to the project and the investment of £57 million in the Welsh roll-out. However, there were always people who were not to be connected to rural broadband and in Wales that was set out under postcodes. In the rural areas, postcodes cover communities that are spread widely and some people have not been able to get broadband even when it was said that it was available. A £1,000 grant has been offered—in England I think it is called the voucher scheme—for those who cannot get broadband, but people in postcodes that were told they would get rural broadband now cannot apply for the £1,000 to get access through satellite or some other technology. Does the Minister see how that is frustrating for constituents of mine and, indeed, many other people?
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s frustration. As he knows, I was recently in his constituency, sitting in a digger, trying to do my bit to deliver superfast broadband to his constituents. From looking at the figures and as I understand it, no commercial coverage of any kind was planned for Brecon and Radnorshire, but under this scheme some 26,000 people should get superfast broadband by the end of 2016 who otherwise would not have done. However, I will come to the issue of people who feel as though they are in one category and cannot self-help, as it were, or apply to other schemes.
I can give my hon. Friend an unequivocal answer—yes. Our latest audit found that the scheme cost is, I think, £92 million below what we expected. With clawback provisions—if more people take up broadband than expected and, therefore, more revenue comes in—we find that we can go further. In Cornwall, for example, a scheme started under the previous Government had a target of 80% coverage, but with the same money we will now reach 95%.
The hon. Member for Hartlepool quoted the National Audit Office report from, I think, 18 months ago, which was when I had to tour the studios with the right hon. Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge) to contest her conclusions. That report got wall-to-wall media coverage, but last month’s NAO report, which gave the scheme a clean bill of health and said that we had made a lot of progress, got absolutely no coverage at all. In fact, I wrote down a quote from the right hon. Lady. She said that there
“does seem to have been some progress, which we…welcome”.
Coming from her, that is a massive vote of confidence.
Will the Minister answer a simple question for me? He has already talked about return on investment. If people have contracted with a company to receive broadband at a certain speed but they then suffer slow speeds, poor connections and constant drop-out, they receive no return on their investment. How can they get their bills adjusted to reflect what they receive, because there is a definite variance between what they contracted for and what they get?
That is an interesting point. If I wanted to dodge the hon. Lady’s question, I would say that that was a contractual matter between BT and its customer, or indeed any other provider and its customer, but it is an important point that I shall take seriously. We have already tackled relatively straightforward issues, such as stopping companies from advertising their speeds as the fastest speed that could be possibly received. We have asked them to advertise only the average speed that people are likely to receive. However, I want to look at whether we can have different levels of contracts for people who clearly receive slower speeds.
I know that the hon. Lady has nothing but admiration for my abilities. That is certainly something that I want to look at and, given that I said that in an open debate, she can be assured that we will look at and discuss that with BT and others.
Let me go back to basics—it is good to see one of the leading members of the Public Accounts Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon), returning to his seat, as I have already prayed in aid the National Audit Office. No doubt, he will seek to correct that position.
While the Minister is going back to basics, I want to applaud him and the efforts in Cornwall on superfast broadband. He rightly points to some good results. However, I would really like him to address the point, which he mentioned, of the people who will not get fibre. What will we do to ensure that they have access to alternative technologies? Where those technologies are satellite, which—as the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams) rightly pointed out—are much more expensive than BT packages, what will we do to enable them to have equality of access and ensure that they are not priced out?
I understand the point that my hon. Friend makes. Time is pressing, but I will answer her question now. We were clear about 90% coverage. People can question whether that target was ambitious enough, but when the programme was going well enough, we found more money—the Treasury gave us an additional £250 million—to go to 95%.
I stress that that was not us moving or revising the target. We said, “Phase 1 is going well. We think we can go further. Here is £250 million and we think we can go to 95%, again by 2017.” To answer the question from the hon. Member for Hartlepool, yes, some of those contracts extend beyond 2017. I used to be a lawyer. Thankfully, I am no longer, but, if he has ever met a lawyer, he will know that if they could write into a contract a completion date in 2117, they would do so to give themselves enough wiggle room. However, the end of the contract does not signify when the project is likely to end.
Of course we want to get to 100%, and all the advice we received said that getting to that last 5% could cost £2 billion. Those were, to put it bluntly, back of a fag packet calculations—they were by sophisticated people and on sophisticated fag packets, but that is what they were—so the previous Secretary of State, my Friend the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Maria Miller), who deserves a lot of credit for the work she did across a range of issues, found £10 million from the Treasury for some pilot schemes, which are now well under way. Some of them are delivering superfast broadband and we are auditing them at the moment.
My hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) is quite right that satellite is quickly emerging as one of the key solutions for the last 5%. We now want to do an analysis of what that is likely to cost, go to the Treasury with an evaluation, and think how best that can be delivered. That will probably involve some of the smaller providers. That is the plan and hopefully by 2018-19 we can be close to 100% superfast broadband access.
My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton said that he wants the pace to be picked up. We have passed the 2 million homes mark under the programme and we are adding 40,000 homes a week—50,000 a week in some instances. However, this is an engineering project and it cannot be delivered overnight.
I want to talk about competition. We had an open competition: we put in place a state aid approved framework contract and anyone could have bid for the contracts. At the beginning, a consortium led by Fujitsu did indeed bid against BT. However, there are constraints when bidding for such contracts. To take Connecting Devon and Somerset, for example, the aim is to try to connect 360,000 homes, but there are not many players in that space, much as I would wish there to be. If a company takes money from the taxpayer—I think it was the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome who asked who owned the assets—there will be open access, so the TalkTalks of this world will provide their retail services on such networks, built partly by the taxpayer and partly by BT. That is open access. That is why, for example, a player such as Virgin Media, which some might think has the scale to compete against BT, did not want to play in this space, because it does not want to run an open-access network. I again give credit to the last Government for the structural separation of Openreach from BT. Openreach is an open platform to which others are allowed access, at prices that are regulated by Ofcom—
Can I bring the Minister back to his “fag packet”, because one of his problems is that he has raised expectations? In Somerset, we may be a bit rough and ready; we are certainly very rural. However, we do not have big mountains, we are only under water part of the year and it was entirely predictable that the rotten old copper cables that ran three and a half miles from my house to an outhouse in Upton Noble were not going to be sufficient, so I do not understand why that was not factored in originally. Why was the contract not let on the basis of delivering fibre to those communities, rather than on the basis of some notional figure, which has failed to be met?
I really fail to understand the point that the hon. Gentleman is trying to make, and I will not invite him to make it again or we could be here all night. In his constituency, 26,000 homes will get coverage under phase 1 of the programme, and nearly 2,500 more homes will get it under phase 2, so we are talking about 28,500 homes in his constituency that will get coverage.
The programme is run by the local authority. To make a blunt point, we are seeking bang for our taxpayer buck. To pluck a figure from the air, if it will cost £50,000 to connect a village of 20 people and one of 200 people, which group will be chosen? That is potentially a political decision as well. One might take a view that connecting those 20 people is better, in the sense that they are at the end of the queue, so let us bring them forward. However, that is something that we also left to local authorities, because we wanted them to partner this programme. It was not for us in the centre of Whitehall to decide between village A and village B.
Can the Minister comment on what appears to be utterly anti-competitive behaviour? I have written down in my notes some fairly serious allegations, and this story has been covered in both the Western Morning News and the Western Daily Press. It is claimed that BT said it would withdraw from the tender process for the contract for Connecting Devon and Somerset if CDS did not use the Broadband Delivery UK framework and run a closed tender process in which BT was the only bidder.
I will happily look at evidence the hon. Lady has of any anti-competitive practices by BT. I will try to unpack what she is alleging. First, BT is free to bid or not to bid for these contracts. We should remember that when we are busily kicking BT, which we do in all these debates; for a quiet life, BT might not bid for any of these contracts.
As I understand it, in the national parks, parts of Exmoor and Dartmoor have been parcelled off, so that the contracts for those areas can be tendered competitively. Ironically the suppliers there have to confirm that they are not participating in any “anti-competitive activities” and they have to sign a “certificate of non-collusion”—
I get the point. I am running out of time, so let me simply say that BT is free to bid or not to bid, and it is free to say to a contracting authority that it wants to use the framework contract to save time and make life more efficient, and that if the authority is going to use a different contract it will not bid. That is entirely up to BT and I do not think that is anti-competitive behaviour.
Obviously, we have a debate—a constant to-ing and fro-ing—with BT, because we audit its figures and invoices. Again, it is worth making the point that BT invests this money up front; it does not receive any money from the Government or the taxpayer until it has done the work. It is not handed a cheque to meander kindly down the road and do the work when it feels like it, and if there is some good football on the telly on Wednesday night, it will not do the work. It does the work and then it gets paid.
As I say, we audit those figures and they show value for money. BT is a national provider, and therefore it was in a very good position to win those contracts. However, there is competition throughout the country.
Interestingly, the Minister said earlier that Fujitsu bid against BT. No, it did not. It bid to be inside the contract, even though it had told the previous Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Maria Miller), that if it got inside the contract it would not bid for any work. She got down on her hands and knees and begged it to be inside the framework contract, because otherwise there would be only one successful bidder inside the framework contract. That is what happened, even though the Department knew that if Fujitsu entered the framework contract, it would not be bidding for any work.
That is not my understanding, but I will happily write to my hon. Friend and explain what I think happened. However, I still fail to see the point that he is trying to make. The point I have just made is that these were quasi-national contracts—big contracts, to cover 360,000 homes—and very few players were willing to participate in that competition. Nevertheless, it was a competition—
As I was saying, you want this to be a debate, Sir Alan, and not a question and answer session.
There are competitors. Virgin Media, for example, has just announced £3 billion worth of private investment to reach 4 million homes in cities. I think the hon. Member for Hartlepool mentioned York, where TalkTalk, with Sky and CityFibre, is planning to build a network, but that will not be delivered overnight. Again, those involved must get investment to do that.
I will say this again and again and again—I make no apology for working for what BT is doing. We can argue about its customer service, and I am not BT’s representative. As a constituency MP, of course I deal with my constituents’ tales of woeful customer service from BT—I do not know how many millions of customers a week, or a month, BT deals with regarding faults on the telephone line, or whatever. I do not seek to be an apologist for BT’s poor customer service when it comes across my desk.
I will, however, stand up for BT as a great British company, which has worked tirelessly on this project and for which it seems to have received an endless supply of grief. BT has provided value for money; it has delivered what we have asked it to deliver; and it is working at pace. I was delighted to meet some BT engineers during the Christmas period while they were installing a cabinet in my constituency.
I am also pretty fed up with people doing down Britain in terms of our comparison with the rest of the world. The hon. Member for Wells talks about South Korea. Well, South Korea is a very different country to the UK. It is densely populated, with a lot of tower blocks that can be connected pretty easily. Nevertheless, its average speed is about 21 megabits, whereas our average speed—[Interruption.] Please stop heckling. As I was saying, South Korea’s average speed is 21 megabits and ours is 18 megabits.
Also, of course, when people talk about the speeds in other countries, they never talk about what that speed costs; they never talk about the equivalent of hundreds of pounds that people would have to spend every month to get these 1 gigabit speeds. And they also never talk about take-up. The fact is that some of this superfast broadband in South Korea, which people are so pleased to talk about, is used by very few South Koreans, because South Koreans do not want it as it is too fast and too expensive.
That brings me neatly to London, where the very misleading survey that was used in the Evening Standard does not come close to showing how competitive London is. The survey cited a company that said, “Oh, we couldn’t get any broadband. It’s terrible. We’re in the centre of London.” In fact, that company actually has superfast broadband running past its door, but it does not want to pay the price for it. However, thanks to the publicity that has been generated, I gather that it has been offered free superfast broadband by a local business provider.
When we launched our voucher schemes—more than 10,000 businesses now have these vouchers—we had around 500 suppliers on our books. There is no shortage of business broadband in London or in many other cities, but there is a shortage of businesses willing to pay the price for it. That is why we have asked Ofcom to review the price of leased lines and the business market. We want to see those prices coming down, and indeed BT’s prices have come down.
I have taken rather too many interventions and perhaps not put my points as forcefully as possible. However, I will say that I am proud of this programme; I am delighted that 2 million premises have received superfast broadband as a result of the programme; I am delighted that 40,000 premises will get superfast broadband this week, and that another 40,000 premises will get it next week; I am delighted that the programme is being delivered by a great British company; and I am delighted that that company is delivering massive value for money to the great British taxpayer.
Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital (Stanmore)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan, in this vital debate that is important not only locally in my constituency, but nationally. The Royal National Orthopaedic hospital in Stanmore is a national and international institution par excellence. I will use a quote that I gleaned when doing some research. The RNOH delivers
“Outstanding clinical outcomes for patients”
in premises that are
“not fit for purpose—it does not provide an adequate environment to care and treat patients.”
I and the staff of the hospital could not have put it better. That is a direct quote from the most recent inspection by the Care Quality Commission in August 2014.
The hospital premises were built during the second world war to house airmen who were defending our shores and to ensure that facilities were available to treat our brave soldiers, airmen and seafarers returning home. Sadly, we still have the same premises that existed during the second world war. I want to put on the record my tribute to the brilliant work that is done by all the medical staff, all the clerical staff and the entire team who provide facilities and services at the hospital. Many charities that are associated with the work of the hospital also operate from the site.
I wanted this debate today because I took the then shadow Secretary of State for Health to Stanmore in January 2010 to see the hospital at first hand. He gave a commitment to the board, the staff and everyone associated with the hospital that, were there to be a Conservative Government after the election in May 2010, the hospital would be rebuilt.
Just before the election, in March 2010, the then Secretary of State for Health, who is now the shadow Secretary of State for Health, announced funding for the redevelopment. It is fair to say that immediately after the election, when hon. Friends discovered there was no money left at the Treasury, I had to work very hard with civil servants and elected politicians at the Treasury to ensure that the promised funding for the rebuilding of the hospital was safeguarded in the emergency Budget that took place immediately after the election.
Here we are now, four and a half to five years on, and there has been very little progress on the rebuilding work. The trust that runs the hospital—I have worked with the board of the trust and others—has responded to every question posed by the trust development authority. It seems almost impossible to get through the positively Kafkaesque process of repeated reviews. The only beneficiaries of that process are the management consultancy firms. Patients and the medical staff have not benefited one iota.
I believe—I stand to be corrected if this is not so—that some £75 million has been spent on management consultants. It has not been spent on the consultants who treat patients, but the people who come and do management studies. I think that that is a disgrace and a waste of public money. All 13 independent reviews have concluded that the orthopaedic hospital offers excellent, high-quality, world-class care. The CQC has rated outcomes as “outstanding”, and the trust is regularly in the top 10% of all hospitals in respect of infection control and friends and family tests.
All independent reviews concerning the hospital’s geographical location have concluded that there are no better alternatives to having the hospital on the Stanmore site. All independent reviews concerning the financial risks associated with the redevelopment have concluded that the Stanmore site development offers the best value for money and that no “more affordable” option is available.
In the meantime, the future of the trust continues to be reviewed, debated and deferred. As I have said, more than £70 million of costs have been incurred, with a severe waste of money on project fees of £20 million, maintenance costs of keeping these rotten buildings going of some £15 million and the lost efficiency opportunity of some £35 million. In this modern day and age, that cannot be right.
By way of background, the hospital is a centre of international expertise in the diagnosis and treatment of neuromusculoskeletal conditions, which include acute spinal injury, bone tumour and complex joint reconstruction. This centre of expertise is not replicated anywhere else within the national health service. It has the largest spinal surgery service in Europe, with a third of UK spinal scoliosis surgery and two thirds of specialist nerve injury work being carried out on the site.
Some 95% of patients rate the care as “good” or “excellent”, and 90% of staff and patients would recommend the hospital to their friends or relatives. The hospital was the longest-standing in London with no MRSA infections in the past five years. Without question, this hospital delivers services and medical treatment that are the best in class. The clinical excellence and innovation are beyond doubt. The problem is that the buildings were built to last for a limited period, but that has stretched to 70 years. It cannot be right that we insist on brilliant medical staff operating in substandard conditions that would shame the third world.
We need to ensure that the rebuilding takes place. I understand completely that the health service has a process for business cases and has to offer value for money. We would all support that in principle. However, as this is a specialist hospital of international renown, it has a special place within the national health service. Successive Governments and the health service have prevaricated on the future of the RNOH for decades—literally 30 years. We have to have a different, more proactive approach to resolve the problem. It is clear that the board that runs the trust will have to conclude at some stage that it can no longer offer safety to patients in the substandard conditions in which it operates.
The creditability of the Government, the national health service and everyone involved is on the line here. Political leadership is required to ensure the best interests of patients and taxpayers. I look to my hon. Friend the Minister for some suitable answers, because this has been going on publicly and privately for the past five years that I have been involved, and, before that, for the past 30 years.
So the RNOH has a track record of delivering financial and performance targets. It responds time and again, updating and revising financial plans and risk assessments and refreshing commissioner support. Every time the board responds, it appears that we do not move forward, but backward. That cannot be allowed to continue and we must reach an appropriate arrangement. We need an innovative and alternative financing option—that is not encouraged through the current NHS process—to ensure that the hospital is delivered.
We should be clear that the key to resolving this matter is the top-up of public money by capital or a loan of some £20 million. It should be understood that the board will build a private hospital alongside the NHS hospital, and that will generate income. The board will also sell off land for housing development, which the area needs, but the board takes the sensible view that it will realise the land receipts gradually as the need arises for the programme’s funding. That will maximise their value and provide a decent level of housing in the local area. Both those things have been positively embraced. The RNOH and the trust development agency have been developing the outline business case since September 2014. In March 2015, we are still waiting to see whether it will be approved and action taken, so that the redevelopment can take place.
It is time that the Department of Health acknowledged that highly specialist hospitals and providers such as the RNOH need a different approach from that taken with the generality of NHS providers. It cannot be right that a super, specialist organisation with such excellent results is denied facilities for the want of a relatively small amount of public money.
In summary, the RNOH is a vital national provider of treatment for the most complex orthopaedic conditions and the rehabilitation for people with life-threatening conditions, such as spinal cord injuries. It does vital work on the innovation of new treatments, leading-edge research and development, the manufacture of state-of-the-art prosthetics and the training of future orthopaedic specialists. The hospital has treated many famous individuals, including Lord Tebbit’s wife after the Brighton bombing and Princess Eugenie. Moreover, the RNOH recognises the financial constraints it operates within and has continuously demonstrated that mitigations to affordability risks are available. Demand for services grows every day. Major land sale receipts will be available. Planning permission is in place; there is no hold-up on that. Housing and employment for the local population will be increased by the proposal, and major private patient income will come in.
The RNOH has a track record of delivery against every target that it has ever been set. It has responded time and again to the requirements of the TDA and every other aspect of the health service. It is clear that every time there has been a step forward, there have been two steps back. Every time proposals have come forward on alternative financing options, we have just ended up spending more public money. If that £75 million had been invested in the project, we would now be looking at new hospital facilities on the site. We would have first-rate, world-class facilities for world-class medical professionals.
No one believes that anyone wants to see the facility closed down, but the reality is that the Department of Health has to move forward and instruct the TDA to abandon the position that it has adopted, so that the RNOH can move forward to development. If we do not do that, we might as well close the hospital. That would be an absolute tragedy for all the specialists, medical staff and patients. By bringing those services together, the medical professionals have developed world-class techniques and an ability to cure individuals of very serious problems. Indeed, the medical staff of the RNOH provide national and international services way beyond the bounds of the hospital. I urge the Minister to give us some good news and to ensure that we get the funding required for the hospital to be rebuilt and for facilities to be provided for the brilliant staff, who do a brilliant job for the patients.
Before you begin, Minister, I want to pass a message on. Generally when debates are answered in this place, the Parliamentary Private Secretary is present. There was not a PPS in the last debate or this debate, and that might happen in the next debate, because I see the Minister for it standing by. When a PPS for the Minister is not present, it is usual for someone from the Whip’s Office to be involved. Sometimes mysterious pieces of advice appear from other places and have to be passed forward to the Minister. When those people are not present to do that, we have to rely on House of Commons staff. They have enough to do, and we should try to help them where possible. I am not saying that it is anything to do with the Minister, but I would be grateful if he could pass that expectation on to the Whips or the PPSs.
I will of course pass that message on, Sir Alan. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for, I think, the first time in the almost three years I have been a Minister. I heed and take note of your comments. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) on securing this debate on an issue that is important to him and his constituents—and, more broadly, to many others. As he rightly outlined, Stanmore is a centre of national excellence in orthopaedic care. It has an international reputation. With the care it provides to its patients, it is one of the best centres in the world.
Before I address the issues my hon. Friend raised, I pay tribute to all those who work in our NHS—not just in his constituency, but right across the country—for their dedication, determination and commitment in providing first-class services to all whom they care for. I know that he made his remarks in that spirit. First-class, dedicated NHS staff need to be supported with the right facilities to provide that level of care. That is exactly why he raised the issue today, and I hope my remarks will bring him some reassurance.
One issue I wanted to pick up on was consultancy spend. I agree with my hon. Friend that hospitals spending money hand over fist in that way on consultants is completely unacceptable. I hope he will be pleased to know that the consultancy spend in the NHS has been reduced by £200 million since the previous Labour Government were in power, which is a strong step in the right direction. Many of the issues that he raised on that are historical. We have introduced new section 42 guidance for trusts that are in deficit to ensure that they are much more rigorous in how they spend their money when they want to receive additional Government cash. Looking at consultancy spend and ensuring that money is not wasted in the way that he outlined are important parts of the new criteria.
As we have heard, the RNOH is the largest orthopaedic hospital in the UK and is regarded as a leader in the field of orthopaedics in the UK and worldwide. It provides a comprehensive range of neuromusculoskeletal health care, ranging from treatment for acute spinal injuries to orthopaedic medicine and specialist rehabilitation for those who suffer from chronic back pain. The range of specialist treatments provided by the trust includes: the rehabilitation of people with life-threatening conditions, including spinal cord injuries; the innovation of new treatments, which is increasingly important, particularly in the areas of care provided by the hospital; leading-edge research and development; the manufacture of state-of-the-art prosthetics; and the training of future orthopaedic specialists. The trust is a national provider of health care: 45% of the trust’s patients live in London, a further 22% are from the remainder of the south-east, 31% are from further afield in the UK and 2% are international, which shows the hospital’s outstanding reputation.
The RNOH plays a major role in teaching. More than 20% of all UK orthopaedic surgeons receive training there, which is testament to the desire of the surgeons of tomorrow to ensure that they train and have experience of providing care at an outstanding centre of excellence. Patients benefit from a team of highly specialised consultants, many of whom are recognised for their expertise both in the UK and abroad. As my hon. Friend outlined, according to the friends and family test, Care Quality Commission inspections and many patient indicators, Stanmore is a centre of excellence and produces the very best possible care and results for patients.
The RNOH’s proposed redevelopment of the Stanmore site is key to ensuring that it can continue to improve the care it provides. I am aware that most of the buildings at Stanmore date from the 1940s, and many are no longer appropriate or fit for purpose for the high-quality care and excellent clinical outcomes that the RNOH provides for its patients. The plan is to rebuild the hospital so that it can continue to provide its specialist orthopaedic care to thousands of patients, young and old, with conditions too complicated for other larger general hospitals to handle. The new hospital will be a state-of-the-art facility that reflects and enhances the medical excellence that already exists at the RNOH. It will provide 124 beds, the majority of which will be in single rooms, thereby greatly enhancing patient privacy and dignity and helping to reduce the transference of infection, the incidence of which, as my hon. Friend outlined, is remarkably low at the trust.
Patient experience will be enhanced through a number of en-suite single rooms and modern, spacious and well-equipped communal areas. Improved facilities for staff will give them a better environment in which to work, enabling them to provide the best possible care. The RNOH is renowned worldwide for its clinical excellence, and manages to maintain high standards of outcomes despite the condition of the estate. The trust looks forward to continuing that high standard of care in the new hospital, which will provide an enhanced setting both for patients, and for support staff delivering the highest possible quality of care.
I appreciate the concerns that have been expressed. My hon. Friend called some of the challenges Kafkaesque, and I share his frustration at the difficulties experienced in developing and improving the facilities at the trust. It has taken a long time to get the proposed redevelopment to this point. Nevertheless, it is important that the business case is affordable. We know some of the historical dangers and challenges of unaffordable private finance initiative deals. In fact, a PFI deal crippled the South London Healthcare NHS Trust; that serves as a reminder to us all of the challenges that hospitals will face in achieving sustainability and delivering high-quality patient care if they take on unsustainable and unaffordable PFI deals.
I know that it has been frustrating, but we must ensure that the financial arrangements for the loan, as well as those underpinning the new development package, are sustainable, in order to ensure that the future provision of services is not jeopardised by a rush into an imprudent financial arrangement. It is in that spirit that there has been a lot of due diligence, although I accept that it has been frustrating.
In April 2013, the NHS Trust Development Authority took over responsibility for approving business cases for estate redevelopment. Between April and December 2013, the TDA worked with the trust to address the additional assurances required on the draft appointment business case. Both the trust and the TDA are clear that the right solution must enable the provision of excellent services to patients, be affordable, and offer value for money.
In December 2013, the RNOH trust board determined that it was unable to give its continued support for the draft appointment business case, because the trust concluded that the risks to affordability and flexibility associated with continuing with the scheme as then proposed were not sustainable. At that point, recognising the importance of the proposed redevelopment, the TDA committed to supporting the trust in working up alternative options for funding. The TDA has been supporting the RNOH to develop a business case that offers value for money and stands a good chance of securing the necessary funding to enable important improvements to be made for the benefit of patients. Serious consideration must also be given to the impact on the long-term sustainability of the trust.
In January 2014, when the financial modelling was complete, the trust concluded that a PFI scheme was unaffordable and that it wished to pursue an alternative scheme. In May 2014, the trust presented to the TDA an outline of its new preferred option for the redevelopment of the Stanmore site. It is a smaller-scale capital redevelopment, costed at around £40 million, as my hon. Friend said. The cost is to be met jointly through public funds and the proceeds from land sales.
Hospitals and trusts sometimes have surplus land that is not used for patient care, and that it costs them money to maintain—money that does not go to front-line patient care. It is of course right that, if they would like to redevelop facilities for the benefit of patients, they should use some of the capital receipts from the sale of that land to contribute to any planned redevelopment. It is in that spirit that the new package was put together. Indeed, it is in that spirit that the section 42 guidance for trusts in deficit that require finance, which I outlined earlier, was drawn up. Where trusts have surplus land that they could release because it is not required for patient care, that land can be freed up in order to provide affordable homes for local people, support the construction industry and, of course, reduce the overall cost of running a trust’s estate. That is a win-win situation for the NHS, as well as for the local economy and, often, young families in the area. I am sure that that will be a benefit of the proposed new scheme, as my hon. Friend said.
The TDA supports the approach that has been put together as part of the £40 million package, and will advise and support the trust on the development and submission of its application for public funding and its business case for the sale of land.
Looking to the future, I understand that the TDA received the trust’s revised outline business case on 29 January. The TDA is now assessing the business case with the aim of making a decision at the earliest opportunity; its board meeting will be held on 19 March—in less than three weeks’ time. This morning, I spoke positively to the TDA about the business case. I have every hope that the outline business case will be strongly supported. We must obviously wait for the outcome of the meeting, but I hope that my hon. Friend and his constituents will hear good news later this month.
The TDA recognises the unarguably poor quality of the Stanmore estate, and the great challenges that that presents to the delivery of high-quality health care and a positive patient experience in the months and years ahead. It is mindful of the need to make a swift decision, so it is committed to working alongside the trust to agree a business case for clinical quality reasons. It is vital that that is done in a way that safeguards important services for patients. Now that the TDA has received a formal business case to review, the process will continue at pace. Once the business case is approved, the TDA will support the trust in developing a full business case and finalising any outstanding assurances that might be required, in the shortest time possible.
I hope that my hon. Friend is reassured that a very active process is now in play, with the Trust Development Authority proactively supporting the trust to progress its business case, which I am optimistic will be approved in its outline form later this month. I hope that my hon. Friend’s constituents will then receive some very good news that will be welcomed not only at Stanmore and by his constituents, but by orthopaedic patients in this country and elsewhere in the world who receive the best possible care from the trust.
Urban Food Growing (Planning)
As always, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan. I secured this debate partly to highlight a constituency issue and to ask the Minister how the planning system can better protect food growing in urban areas. There are obviously many pressures on land in our towns and cities. We need employment space, public spaces, and, above all, we really need to start a systematic programme of house building again. But our green spaces are also important.
The Wildlife Trusts and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds found in their “Act for Nature” campaign that the most deprived communities are 10 times less likely to live in the greenest areas and that access to green space helps to reduce health inequalities. The creation of green corridors in urban areas helps to avoid habitat fragmentation, reduces the urban heat island effect, better harvests rainwater and improves air quality.
As the hon. Member for Colchester (Sir Bob Russell) noted in the main Chamber a few weeks ago,
“increasing the amount of ‘green infrastructure’ by 10% could entirely offset the impact of rising temperatures in such high-density urban centres.”—[Official Report, 14 January 2015; Vol. 590, c. 981.]
Urban food growing is very much part of that picture.
People have become much more concerned about the provenance of their food. They are keen to see more sustainable food and farming practices and they want to protect urban biodiversity and wildlife. Urban agriculture should be seen very much as part of a strategy to tackle food poverty and the public health challenges associated with poor diet.
As recent reports by the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs have highlighted, the issue is also one of food security, food sovereignty and the UK’s declining self-sufficiency in food. Achieving food security is about building environmental and economic resilience in the face of climate change, using resources more sustainably in the production and supply of food, reducing food waste, lowering high emissions from the food supply chain and promoting healthy and sustainable diets. I am pleased and proud that Bristol is in the vanguard of that movement.
Back in 2009 Bristol council commissioned a report by Joy Carey, “Who feeds Bristol? Towards a resilient food plan”. We became one of the first cities in the UK to establish our own food policy council, which drives forward policies to increase the amount of land available for growing food and to safeguard the diversity of retailers. We launched the good food plan for Bristol, which has the ambition of ensuring that everyone has access to good, affordable, healthy food. The Bristol Food Network helps to connect up all those people and businesses with a shared vision of transforming Bristol into a truly sustainable food city.
A study by the university of Gloucestershire-based countryside and community research institute found that for every £1 of investment in community food projects, there was a sevenfold social return on that investment to the community. There are far too many such projects in Bristol to name them all, but I want to mention a few. The Severn Project provides horticultural training to people recovering from drug and alcohol dependency. It is a successful social enterprise, acting as a hub for satellite growers and providing access to land, equipment, sales and distribution. It estimates that every kilogram of its produce is worth £15 to the local economy.
Elm Tree farm is based on a 35-acre site in my constituency and offers vocational training to about 60 people who have autism or learning disabilities, illustrating the therapeutic value of food growing projects, as well as offering them a route into work. Incredible Edible Bristol advocates guerrilla gardening, taking over grass verges and other underused land to plant seeds and grow food. The Matthew Tree Project’s FOODTURES initiative helps long-term unemployed people back into skilled work through training in horticulture, food processing and supply. It brings the best nutritious food to the poorest areas of the city.
Last but not least, Feed Bristol is an exemplary study of the social, environmental and economic benefits of community food growing. Over the past three years, it has directly helped 36 people back into employment, and in acting as an incubator site for businesses related to food and to wildlife, six new businesses have been launched. Feed Bristol engages many thousands of disadvantaged people and school children in activities on the site, from helping to educate children in the value of food and where it comes from, to developing horticultural skills. Sadly, however, we are now engaged in a last-ditch attempt to alter a new MetroBus route that will involve the building of a bus-only junction on prime agricultural land, which includes the Feed Bristol site.
Since the MetroBus scheme was first designed more than five years ago, the area planned for the junction has become a new hub of Bristol’s urban food growing movement. If the scheme goes ahead, which we fear it will, the junction will pass through not only the Avon Wildlife Trust’s award-winning community food growing project, Feed Bristol, which I have just mentioned, but the long-standing Stapleton allotments, the Sims Hill Shared Harvest organic community-supported agriculture market garden and the Edible Futures educational market-gardening co-operative.
The land under threat is part of what is known as the “blue finger”, which is highly fertile, food growing soil, predominantly grade 1—coded blue on maps, which is how the area gets its name—and some peripheral areas of grade 2 and 3, collectively known as “best and most versatile” land. Less than 3% of soil in the UK is grade 1, so the blue finger land is a valuable asset not only for Bristol, but for the whole UK. The land is also designated green belt and includes the Frome valley conservation area, as well as a wildlife corridor and woodland, but none of that has protected it from development.
The transport scheme received planning consent back in August and is now with the Department for Transport for final funding approval. Meanwhile, the council, in its eagerness to start felling trees, has applied to the High Court to clear the site of protesters, who have been camped for the past month on the land, high up in the treetops in tree houses. The protesters have a tremendous amount of support from local residents and from further afield. I do not know whether the Minister can do anything to help us in our fight to protect the site. I have written to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and met and written to Transport Minister Baroness Kramer. We have not yet given up hope.
On the broader issues raised, national planning policy includes the aim to protect best and most versatile agricultural land in recognition of its role as a precious national asset, essential to our future food security. Once land is lost to development, it is extremely unlikely that it will ever be returned to agricultural use. In 2011, however, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs reported a huge loss of BMV land to development over recent years, although we do not really know the extent, as such data are not collected systematically.
Furthermore, there has been a weakening of the protection given to BMV land, most recently as a result of changes to the national planning policy framework in March 2012. Will the Minister discuss with her DEFRA colleagues the feasibility of monitoring the loss to development of our most productive soils—a process that is vital to understanding the scale of the problem? What plans does her Department have to strengthen the protection of our best soil in national planning policy as critical to our food security? That was promised in the Conservative party’s “Open Source Planning” policy green paper in 2010. Then, in the natural environment White Paper, the Government said that they wanted
“to protect our best and most versatile agricultural land.”
Another problem is that while the planning practice guidance supports space for growing food, the national planning policy framework does not include local food growing, which tends to mean that local plans do not include it either. Promoting local food may be put into a local plan—in Bristol, it is included in both the local plan and the core strategy—but it does not have to be. At the national level, no link is presumed between sustainable development and supporting local food. Food production is missing, yet it is a major land use. It thus falls to experts at the local level to show that local food meets the core planning principles of the NPPF.
Will the Minister acknowledge that including local food in the NPPF and demonstrating how it meets sustainable development objectives would make a big difference? Will she say something on the value of food growing to the achievement of sustainable development inherent in the planning system? The economic strategy of the West of England local enterprise partnership also does not mention food production. Will the Minister comment on the relationship between that strategy and the core strategies and local plans of the west of England local authorities?
In a recent speech, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs talked about the creation of
“Food Enterprise Zones to kick-start local food economies and join up farming, manufacturing, distribution and retail firms”,
which sounds to be very much along the lines of what we want to achieve in Bristol. I appreciate that the Minister is in a different Department, but it would be good to hear more about how such plans can be protected by the planning system and the Minister’s Department.
The MetroBus bus-only junction project has caused serious concerns about how allotments are sold off for development—a process that requires the consent of the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. Last year, Labour’s shadow Communities Secretary found that the Secretary of State had rejected only two out of 83 applications by English councils to sell off allotment sites for development between 2010 and 2013. So is it simply a rubber-stamping exercise by the Secretary of State, or can we rely on the process to protect our allotments?
The council’s application to move the Stapleton allotments for the MetroBus junction did not mention that the site to which the allotments would be relocated had considerably inferior soil and was already home to a beautiful wildflower meadow and wildlife corridor. Subsequently, the soil on the new site was discovered to contain levels of lead too high for community gardens, but the Minister’s Department was not made aware of that. The council proposes to take topsoil from the BMV land and use it to replace the topsoil in the new location, but like biodiversity offsetting, the science of how well the soil will work in the new location is unclear. A number of experts have expressed doubts.
Turning to the green belt, under the planning system large transport systems should only be developed on green belt in exceptional circumstances and the potential harm caused should be clearly outweighed by other considerations. In the planning application, however, those exceptional circumstances seemed to rest on fairly unsubstantiated claims that it would “unlock employment”, while the “potential harm” to the area was not assessed. To be fair to the Minister, I do not intend to go into details of the MetroBus scheme, which I appreciate is a matter for her colleagues in the Department for Transport, but I flag up the frustrations felt by people that the planning system was not adequately considering matters that it should have been considering when the scheme went through.
I will finish by expressing my concerns about how local people were consulted about the scheme, how the situation was handled by the planning committee on the night of the decision and just how difficult it has been throughout the process, which has been going on for several years, to challenge it. The Minister’s boss is a great advocate of localism, but it is clear that not enough local power was in local people’s hands.
When the planning committee met to consider the application in August last year, it was told by officers that it was an all or nothing situation and that funding for the whole £200 million bus rapid transit 3 scheme would be withdrawn if the application was not approved there and then. That does not square with what I was later told by the Transport Minister, Baroness Kramer, but with that threat hanging over the committee’s head, the application went through.
All along, we have found it incredibly difficult to get information from the council about whether alternatives to the bus-only junction had been considered, what the benefit-cost ratio of those alternatives was, what discussions, if any, there had been with other stakeholders, what rules ought to be followed and whether the correct applications had been made and permissions granted. The balance of power is weighted against local people, and the Government’s recent clampdown on the right to judicial review, which was already out of reach for most community groups, has made it even worse.
I do not know whether the Minister can do anything to help us save the blue finger. I hope that I have managed to persuade her that this is a serious issue and that, even if we cannot protect the blue finger in this instance, it would be good if her Department—or a future, Labour Department for Communities and Local Government—would look at how we can change the planning system to make sure a situation like this one does not happen again.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) on securing this debate on a topic on which I have a great deal of sympathy with her. I am from Portsmouth, the most densely populated city in Europe—we are also an island—and so very much understand the importance of green space and of allotments in particular.
The Government recognise how important allotments and other open spaces are for local people. They provide people with the opportunity to enjoy regular physical exercise, meet new people in their neighbourhood and benefit from a healthier diet, regardless of income. It is only right that the law reflects that importance.
Local authorities must provide allotments where they see there is a demand for them, and cannot sell or change the use of such land without first getting consent from the Secretary of State. Both the mandatory statutory criteria, set out in section 8 of the Allotments Act 1925, and the additional policy criteria ensure that allotment holders will not lose their plots or have nowhere left to garden. Those criteria make sure that unless there are exceptional circumstances, a site that is fully or mostly occupied will not receive consent for disposal. The criteria also ensure that, before consent is given, the local authority must show that it has promoted allotment gardening and made residents aware of the site it plans to dispose of. Where an allotment site is mentioned in the local plan—perhaps as a designated local green space—the local authority will not get consent unless it can show it is not acting contrary to the plan.
Last year the Department published “Allotment disposal guidance: safeguards and alternatives”, a new set of guidance clarifying the legal and policy safeguards in place to ensure that disposal is properly and thoroughly handled, which is available on the gov.uk website. The process for handling disposal applications is now wholly transparent and sets out each factor that will be taken into account when deciding whether each of the criteria has been met.
We recognise that demand for allotment plots still outstrips supply, but the situation is slowly improving. A survey of allotment waiting lists carried out by the National Allotment Society in 2013 indicated an average of 52 people waiting for every 100 plots, compared with 57 per 100 plots when a similar survey was carried out two years earlier. In addition, the survey indicated that in the two years before it was conducted, 65 new allotment sites had been brought into use by 51 councils, covering 30 hectares, creating nearly 2,000 new plots.
Before I turn to areas of regulation and policy that can assist communities, I will address specific points raised by the hon. Lady, who has asked for some practical help. As she recognises, my limited brief does not extend to either the Department for Transport or the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, but I am here to be helpful. I am happy to consider whether there could be more encouragement for local food growing when the NPPF is next revised, but she obviously also needs help now.
Metrobus required planning permission from the three local authorities that cover stretches of the proposed bus route, as well as an order under the Transport and Works Act 1982 from the Department for Transport and separate consent to dispose of the sites, which technically are allotment land—the application for that consent is still under consideration by the Secretary of State. It is true that now the planning permissions have been granted only a court could set them aside. We are also beyond the stage at which the Secretary of State can exercise his powers to call in a planning proposal.
As a Minister in the Department for Communities and Local Government, it would not be proper for me to comment on precise aspects of planning permissions, the handling of an application or any planning conditions imposed. Those are a matter for the local planning authority. As I have said, one aspect is still under consideration by my Secretary of State. The merits of the scheme have been outlined to the hon. Lady in a letter from the local mayor. I should clarify that the council is free to submit a revised planning application that would be determined in the usual way; I put that on the record now for her benefit.
An important part of localism is ensuring that councils and communities can protect the green spaces that are precious to them. Local people know their areas better than Whitehall does, and are best placed to make decisions about their planning needs. Local plans, supported by neighbourhood plans, are the best way to steer development to the appropriate locations and decide where planning restraint is essential.
The planning system is led by the policies in the local plan. Those policies are adopted only after public consultation, followed by independent examination by a planning inspector who will check and report on the soundness of each draft plan. Planning law requires that specific planning permissions be obtained before any material change of land use occurs. Planning permission is also necessary for any building or engineering works affecting the land.
Planning policy also puts local communities at the heart of planning. In our NPPF we ask planners to assess the needs of the food production industry and resolve associated planning barriers. Planners should be no less keen to support people in our towns and cities who wish to grow their own food, whether on an allotment or in a domestic garden. The framework also asks local planning authorities to insist on high standards of design, including when it comes to the layout of our towns and cities and the provision of green space within them.
Allotments, along with community gardens, urban farms and other such land uses, are open spaces of public benefit. That should always be recognised by local authorities when preparing assessments of need and audits of existing open space and recreational facilities in their areas, or when considering the impact of new development. Some allotments are on the outskirts of towns, and may fall within the protections given to the green belt or other types of designated area. There, the local planning authority should refuse planning permission for inappropriate new building that would harm the openness of the land. Moreover, in conservation areas, any gardens, parks and other green spaces between the protected buildings may be identified by policies in the local plan as part of the characterisation of the area and preserved for that reason.
The phrase “green infrastructure” may be jargon, but it helps to make the point that the provision and retention of high-quality green open space and tree planting are not only vital to the well-being of communities, but should be part of the strategy to mitigate the effects of climate change. In all our towns and cities, the provision and enhancement of green space is important. The Government have introduced a range of new powers to allow individuals and communities to protect the spaces of most value to them. Those powers include the power for communities to create local green spaces—a designation made as part of a local plan or a neighbourhood plan that enables communities to identify green areas of particular importance and impose protection as strong as that applied to green-belt land. That will be of interest to the hon. Lady.
Neighbourhood planning is capturing the imagination of communities across the country. About 1,400 communities have started the neighbourhood planning process, and more are joining them each week. Neighbourhood plans have a legal weight prior to being adopted through a referendum. The fact that a plan is being written and is in place, subject to a referendum, gives it legal weight; it does not have that status only after a referendum.
I am pleased to see that a number of policies on allotments are coming forward from neighbourhood plans. In some instances, they are about maintaining existing provision, and in other cases they seek to promote the creation of new allotments. If the hon. Lady is interested, I suggest that she look at the neighbourhood plans for St James in Exeter, Thame and Cringleford, which have done some trailblazing things on allotments.
There is also the community right to bid. More than 300 green spaces have been listed as community assets, which ensures that groups can pause the sale of land for up to six months to give them the opportunity to raise the money to buy the land. There is also the community right to reclaim land, which enables community groups to acquire vacant or underused land and bring it back into beneficial use.
The hon. Lady has clearly been active in campaigning on this issue for her constituents. She has spoken to other Departments, and I encourage her to carry on speaking to the Department for Transport, although most of the levers are clearly in her local authority’s hands. Although she will not want to consider failure in her campaign, if she is faced with the option of a plan B, my Department may be able to do some things to assist her, given its remit. The hon. Lady said that Bristol is a trailblazer on this issue, and it is also a trailblazer in recognising the importance of social enterprise. The local enterprise partnership recognises the importance of social enterprises, and it is focused on providing opportunities for economic regeneration, getting those who are in long-term unemployment back to work and so forth. Although I am not completely au fait with them, there are clearly a number of enterprises and ventures that are of value to the community that are contingent on the piece of land in question. If the hon. Lady were faced with that situation, we would not want those enterprises to be placed if jeopardy. If they need help relocating, finance to assist them or any other support mechanism, officials in my Department will be able to help with signposting, and I will be able to talk the hon. Lady through the support and options that are available. If she were in that situation, I would encourage her to get in touch with me. Obviously, her aim is to prevent that from happening. I hope that my outlining of some of the policies available has left her better informed.
I sense that the Minister is about to draw her remarks to a close, but she has not yet addressed the issue of soil quality and the protection of the best and most versatile land in the planning system, which is one of the key things that we have been pushing for.
That is on my list; I was trying to find it. As the hon. Lady said, that is not within my Department’s remit; it is very much a DEFRA issue. However, I will undertake to write to her about the prospects, and about what is done currently and what may be done in the future to monitor what is happening to high-grade land.
I appreciate that the issue of farming, soil quality and so on falls primarily within DEFRA’s remit. However, I asked the Minister’s Department a year ago whether this could be a special category that is protected within the planning system, and the answer was that it could perhaps be dealt with in the local plans. However, as I have outlined, it is not on local authorities’ radars yet. Could the Minister undertake at least to talk to her officials about whether that is possible? [Interruption.] I think a note is winging its way towards her.
Yes, certainly. I have said that I am happy to look at those things when the NPPF is revised. The clock is clearly ticking for the hon. Lady on this issue, and I hope that I have been able to count her through some of the levers that are available to her. She said that it has been difficult for her to get to the bottom of certain facts. Clearly, the process that should be being followed is transparent. It is on the website if she has any technical questions. If she has had difficulty in getting certain facts and pieces of information, I would be happy to follow that up with her.
When I was a councillor in the London borough of Barnet, I was responsible for allotments, and the big fear for many of the allotment holders was that the council wanted to sell off the allotments for development. The Minister said that under section 23 of the Small Holdings and Allotments Act 1908 local authorities have an obligation to provide allotments. If the Minister cannot answer me now, will she write to me later to confirm that that may not be the case in London, because of the London Government Act 1963, so the same obligations may not apply to the London borough of Barnet?
I would be happy to write to my hon. Friend on that issue. I will also write to the hon. Member for Bristol East about her ambitions for greater monitoring when the policy framework is revised, and about soil and further things that can be done to encourage local food production. I would be happy to look at that.
In conclusion, I encourage the hon. Lady to maintain dialogue with my Department and others to see whether we can do anything further if she is not successful in her campaign, and if those social enterprises need support in relocating or developing their business plans. I will follow up with a letter, and I encourage her to keep talking to my Department and others.
Question put and agreed to.